FORT MYERS, Fla. — Three days after a good Samaritan's legs were severed in an automobile accident, the hospital that treated her filed a lien for more than $60,000 against her.
A week later, Lee Memorial Hospital here upped the ante, revising its claim to more than $150,000 for five days of care.
Danielle Hagmann, 30, of North Fort Myers, Fla., lost her legs April 23 when she stopped to help a motorist whose vehicle had spun out of control during a rainstorm. She was reaching for a blanket in the back of her SUV when a third vehicle hit the stopped car, pinning Hagmann against a guardrail.
On April 26, the hospital filed its financial claim against Hagmann, who is a freelance licensed massage therapist without health insurance. On May 3, the revised amount filed with the Lee County Clerk of Court's Office was $151,478.80.
"I didn't realize in the first three days of her crisis, they would do it," said Steven Berkowitz, Hagmann's father. "It's not fair. That's heinous."
A Lee hospital spokeswoman called it standard operating procedure. A document from Lee Memorial Health System explains that the lien "applies only to money which may be paid by an insurance company" and does not affect any of a patient's property.
That would give the hospital system a claim on money Hagmann might collect from her auto insurance company or the insurer of the driver whose actions caused her to be pinned. Jeremy Alonza Carter, 37, of St. Petersburg, Fla., suffered minor injuries and was issued a citation for careless driving.
"It's not unusual for people to think it's a lien on their home, but it's not," said Mary Briggs, health system spokeswoman. "Anyone who came in because of a car accident, we would do this."
A 1978 Florida law requires a hospital to file its lien within 10 days of a patient's discharge, she said.
However, in Lee County a judge found the law unconstitutional, and a Florida appeals court is waiting to make a decision after it finishes hearing about two other related cases, said Valerie Dondero, a lawyer who presented her oral arguments in the Lee County case in October.
The hospital believes the practice is constitutional, but the lawsuits come from auto insurance companies that "are not crazy about it," Dondero said.
If no insurance company ends up paying, Briggs said the hospital offers financial assistance and wrote off almost $55 million in charity care in the past fiscal year.
"I want to be clear that this is about auto insurance companies paying what is owed to the hospital and is not about the patient," Briggs said. "We have a very generous financial assistance program to help low income patients or those who are not insured."
Going after insurance money is a more lucrative way of getting a hospital's bills paid, said Scot Greenberg, a Fort Myers personal-injury lawyer.
"It's not a fun thing to know that they are worried about your bill already while you are trying to recover," he said. "It's been my experience as a person who has been injured that a good attitude and a stress-free environment helps someone recover."
Hagmann's father is worried that her first year of care will cost at least a million dollars. The community is helping — Hagmann and her partner, Lyndsey Johns, have five children younger than 10, including three foster children — but he's worried about what the future will hold.
"It breaks your heart. This is my kid," said Berkovitz, his voice shaking. "This is my kid, and she's only 30 years old."