An Arlington Circuit Court jury ruled yesterday that a 33-year-old Korean immigrant doesn't have to pay hospital bills totaling more than $56,000 for treatment given her husband, who died of cancer.
Jin Chang, the defendant in the suit filed by Arlington Hospital, had told the jury she signed a form assuming financial liability only because her husband was in severe pain and she feared he would be turned away from the hospital's emergency room if she failed to sign.
The jury heard several hours of testimony yesterday and deliberated about an hour before ruling against the hospital.
Chang, who lives in Arlington, had testified she signed the form nearly two year ago when she took her husband, Sung, 40, to the hospital after he complained of severe stomach pain. Her husband died in the hospital of stomach cancer four months later.
"I asked them to treat my husband in a hurry," said Chang, who earned about $9,000 last year as a Korean language instructor and part-time Northern Virginia real estate agent. In a barely audible voice, Chang testified that her husband was vomiting and in terrible pain when they arrived at the emergency room. "They told me I had to sign this form before they would treat him."
Chang's attorney, Arlington Legal Aid Director Charles Vasaly, argued that the emergency room authorization was essentially an "illegal contract" obtained under duress. "It's unconscionable that Mrs. Chang should sit here and be liable for $56,000 of her husband's back medical bills," Vasaly told the jury.
Arlington Hospital officials argued yesterday that by signing the authorization, Chang "expressly promised" to pay her husband's bill regardless of the amount. "She has admitted that this bill is her obligation," said attorney Griffin T. Garnett. "By signing that [document] the hospital went ahead and treated her husband and didn't pester him to sign it. That speeded up his treatment."
In court papers and testimony yesterday, Chang told of attempts to pay the mounting hospital bills incurred by her husband, a former Korean newspaper editor who was denied political asylum by U.S. immigration officials during his hospitalization.
Chang said that when she and her husband were sitting in the emergency room, "I kept going to the window and saying, 'Please, when's my husband's turn?' and [a hospital clerk] said I had to finish signing the forms. My husband was throwing up, so I didn't even care what I was signing," said Chang, who claimed she believed that the paperwork was delaying her husband's admission.
Five weeks after her husband was admitted, Chang said, she went to see Edna Mae Russo, then the hospital's credit manager. Chang said Russo told her that her husband's bill then totaled $15,000 and that the hospital would need monthly payments of $150.
Because neither Chang nor her husband, then the owner of a small print shop, were U.S. citizens, they failed to qualify for government assistance in paying medical bills. The Changs had no medical insurance.
Instead, Chang testified, she brought with her a check for $800, money raised by the Washington area Korean community, as partial payment. Blinking back tears, Chang testified that Russo told her, "We know you don't have any money, so bring someone with you from the Korean community and let them sign" a financial agreement. Chang said Russo told her that "if I didn't get anybody to sign the form, they would discharge my husband."
Chang said she contacted several leaders of the Korean community who declined to sign the payment agreement.
Hospital officials said they sent Chang periodic bills but did not discharge her husband. In testimony yesterday, hospital officials said that only doctors, rather than business office personnel, are authorized to discharge patients.
In a deposition, Russo, who now lives in Missouri, said, "It was my feeling that the Korean community would be liable" for the bill.
Chang testified that shortly after her husband's death in October, 1977, she received a $56,292.26 bill from the hospital and went to see accounts receivable director Charles Daigrepont.
In court papers, Daigrepont said that prior to their meeting he had tentatively recommended that the hospital write off the account to charity but that he later withdrew that recommendation. Daigrepont was not permitted to testify about the recommendation or its withdrawal. He did tell the jury, "Mrs. Chang was very angry and referred to me as a Communist. She asked, why did we continue to persecute her?"