More Guidance Under Howell

Another case addressing the issue of damages for past medical expenses was recently decided in California. In Ochoa v. Dorado (2014) WL3589887, Joaquin Ochoa and Imelda Moreno (“Plaintiffs”) were driving a truck when they were rear-ended by a tractor-trailer driven by Jesus Felipe Dorado, a driver for Trimac Transportation Services Western, Inc. (“Defendants”). The force of the collision pushed Plaintiffs’ truck forward, causing it to strike a tractor in front of them. Plaintiffs were taken to the hospital and received subsequent medical treatment, including back surgery. They filed a complaint against Defendants for negligence and loss of consortium.

Defendants filed a motion in limine to exclude any evidence of the reasonable amount of Plaintiffs’ medical expenses. They argued that Plaintiffs’ failure to produce such evidence in response to discovery and failure to designate an expert witness to testify to the reasonableness of their medical expenses precluded the presentation of such evidence at trial. Defendants cited Howell v. Hamilton Meats & Provisions, Inc. (2011) 52 Cal.4th 541 (Howell), which held a plaintiff cannot recover more than the reasonable value of the medical services provided. The court deferred ruling on “the Howell motion.”

At trial, Defendants stipulated to the amounts billed for Plaintiffs’ past medical treatment. Plaintiffs did not present any testimony on the reasonableness of their past medical expenses. At the conclusion of trial, the court admitted evidence of the amounts of Plaintiffs’ medical bills. The jury found Defendants’ negligence was a substantial factor in causing Plaintiffs’ harm and awarded damages, including past and future medical expenses, to both Plaintiffs.

Defendants filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing there was no evidence to support any item of damages awarded by the jury. With respect to past medical expenses, they argued Plaintiffs’ medical bills were not evidence of the reasonable value of the services provided. Furthermore, they argued Plaintiffs failed to prove the reasonable value of past medical services and therefore were not entitled to damages for past medical expenses. The trial court filed an order granting a new trial as to this issue, stating Plaintiffs clearly had incurred medical expenses and the only question was the reasonable value of the services provided. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Court of Appeal concluded the full amount billed, but unpaid, for past medical services is not relevant to the reasonable value of the services provided. Therefore, evidence of unpaid medical bills cannot support an award of damages for past medical expenses. The Court cited Howell, stating the “full amount billed for past medical services is not relevant to the reasonable value of the services provided…there can be significant discrepancies between the amounts charged by medical providers and the costs of providing services, and the price of a particular service can vary from hospital to hospital in California.” The Court stated this and other observations in Howell compel the conclusion that the full amount billed by medical providers is not relevant to the value of past medical services. Furthermore, for the same reason, the full amount billed for past medical services is not relevant to a determination of the reasonable value of future medical services.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kelly Denham graduated from Loyola Law School in 2012. Ms. Denham’s primary focus at Tyson & Mendes is construction defect litigation. Contact Kelly at 858.263.4117 or kdenham@tysonmendes.com.

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