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The familiar legal doctrine that a minor can’t be held liable for a contract debt was not enough to shield gunshot victim Harun Fountain from medical bills. A unanimous state Supreme Court concluded Jan. 13 that Connecticut case law makes an exception to that rule, called the doctrine of necessaries, despite statutory law that prompted a probate judge to rule Fountain’s doctor bills debt uncollectible. In 1996, Fountain was shot in the back of his head by a playmate and blinded in one eye, but recovered due to extensive medical care that saved his life. His mother, Vernetta Turner Tucker, failed to pay a $17,694 bill from Yale Diagnostic Radiology, despite the doctors’ vigorous collection efforts in 1999. In 2001, Tucker’s debts, including the obligation to the doctors, was discharged in bankruptcy. However, in a tort action against the boy who shot him, Fountain listed among his damages “substantial sums of money [expended] on medical care” and recovered a financial settlement that was placed under the care of the probate court during Fountain’s minority. When the doctors sought payment from the trust, the Milford, Conn., probate judge denied their motion based on C.G.S. � 46b-37(b), which states that parents are liable for their children’s medical care, and a parent’s refusal or inability to pay does not make the child liable. On appeal to Superior Court, Judge Trial Referee George W. Ripley II concluded that Fountain was liable under the doctrine of necessaries, citing appellate decisions from New York, Maryland and Ohio. Fountain’s lawyer on appeal, Marc L. Glenn of the New Haven, Conn., offices of Martyn Philpot Jr., contended that Connecticut does not subscribe to the doctrine of necessaries, and by statute places the obligation to pay for necessities solely on the parent. “While unfortunate, there was nothing impermissible nor illegal regarding Tucker’s conduct” in filing bankruptcy, Glenn argued in his brief, contending the doctors are simply left without any remedy. COLLECTING FROM ORPHANS Justice David M. Borden, writing for the Supreme Court, disagreed. He set about explaining when and why a minor can be held personally liable for medical debts. In the 1875 case of Strong v. Foote, the state Supreme Court held that a dentist could collect from an orphan with a trust fund, because the services supplied were “necessaries.” Between 1907 and 1959, Connecticut statutes stated that, for necessaries sold to people who would lack legal capacity due to infancy or drunkenness, the reasonable price of the goods or services is due. And when that statute was repealed, through the adoption of the Uniform Commercial Code in 1959, it was not a sign that the doctrine of necessaries was also repealed. With the UCC’s adoption, C.G.S. � 42a-1-103 states that, unless specifically displaced, common law “principles of law and equity, including the law merchant and the law relative to capacity to contract” still apply. “We have not heretofore articulated the particular legal theory underlying the doctrine of necessaries,” Borden wrote. It is actually not a true contract, but a quasi-contract created by the principles of equity to prevent unjust enrichment. “Thus, when a medical service provider renders necessary medical care to an injured minor, two contracts arise: the primary contract between the provider and the minor’s parents, and an implied in law contract between the provider and the minor himself,” Borden wrote. Because the remedy of collecting from the child is secondary, the creditor “must make all reasonable efforts to collect from the parents” first, he said. In the case of young Fountain, there are strong equitable arguments for the doctors being able to collect. When the boy’s life depended on emergency medical care, Borden noted, the “medical services provider cannot stop to consider how the bills will be paid or by whom.” Other states limit the doctrine of necessaries to situations where the minor has recovered a judgment from a tortfeasor, or where the minor is not living in the parents’ home. Borden said the “place of the minor’s residence is simply irrelevant to the question of whether the creditor has an enforceable claim against the parent.” The radiology group was represented on appeal by Christopher J. Picard, of New Haven’s Tobin & Melien. Picard is currently at Hartford, Conn.’s Howd & Ludorf.

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