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University of Kansas Hospital Authority v. Board of Commissioners of County of Wabaunsee

Supreme Court of Kansas

June 27, 2014


Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion filed May 20, 2011.

Appeal from Wabaunsee District Court; JEFFREY R. ELDER, judge.

Judgment of the Court of Appeals reversing the district court is reversed. Judgment of the district court is affirmed.



1. Under K.S.A. 19-1910, a county is only obligated to pay for the medical care of an individual who has no resources to pay for his or her own care and who is a prisoner committed to or held in the county jail, meaning someone who has been sentenced to jail; has been arrested and is being detained in jail while awaiting trial; has been apprehended and arrested and would be detained in jail while awaiting trial but for his or her injuries; or has been otherwise committed to jail, such as in a civil commitment proceeding.

2. A county does not receive a benefit and is not unjustly enriched when a healthcare provider treats a person injured within the county's borders unless the county or one of its officers had a legal obligation to provide medical care to tat person.

Jennifer Martin Smith, of Topeka, argued the cause, and E. Lou Bjorgaard Probasco, of Probasco & Associates, P.A., of Topeka, was with her on the briefs for appellant.

Norbert C. Marek, Jr., county attorney, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellee.

Nathan Eberline, of Topeka, was on the brief for amicus curiae Kansas Association of Counties.


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Prior Kansas appellate decisions require a sheriff to provide medical care to a prisoner in the sheriff's custody and a county to pay for the care if the prisoner is indigent and has no other means of payment. Relying on this caselaw, the University of Kansas Hospital Authority (Hospital Authority) sued the Board [299 Kan. 943] of Wabaunsee County Commissioners (County) for reimbursement of the medical expenses incurred in the treatment of a man who jumped through the fourth-story window of an unlocked interrogation room in the Wabaunsee County jail where he had been placed by sheriff officials during an investigation.

We hold the County is not obligated to pay the expenses because the injured man, although temporarily detained, was not a prisoner committed to or held in the county jail at the time he was injured and hospitalized.

Facts and Procedural Background

The relevant facts are uncontroverted. This dispute arose on April 5, 2006, when Ector Manuel Savala-Quintero, a/k/a Alberto Contreras Gonzalez, (Contreras) sustained multiple physical injuries after his jump and

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four-story fall from the Wabaunsee County jail. To explain the circumstances relevant to a determination of whether he was a prisoner in the sheriff's custody at the time he was hospitalized, we begin approximately 1 month earlier, when a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper in Wabaunsee County had arrested Contreras on drug-related charges. While Contreras was in the Wabaunsee County jail awaiting trial, a federal agent with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) interviewed him over the telephone and then faxed a form I-247 Immigration Detainer to the Wabaunsee County Sheriff's Office. The detainer was not a warrant but required the sheriff's office to detain Contreras for no longer than 48 hours so that ICE would have " adequate time . . . to assume custody of the alien."

On March 21, 2006, Contreras and the Wabaunsee County Attorney entered into a diversion agreement concerning the Wabaunsee County charges. The diversion agreement led to Contreras' release from the Wabaunsee County jail on March 28, 2006. Contreras was immediately taken to the Shawnee County jail on an outstanding warrant. A copy of the ICE detainer was sent with him. Contreras bonded out of the Shawnee County jail on April 5, 2006, and was to appear in court the following day.

On the evening of April 5, 2006, Contreras returned to the Wabaunsee County courthouse to retrieve some personal items he had [299 Kan. 944] left at the jail, which is located on the fourth floor of the courthouse. To enter the courthouse building after 5 p.m., a person must " buzz dispatch" to let him or her in. Contreras arrived with his sister and her boyfriend.

Jailer Barbara O'Connor of the Wabaunsee County Sheriff's Office received a call from dispatch around 7:30 p.m., indicating that Contreras was at the courthouse door and wanted to collect his belongings. Before allowing Contreras to enter, O'Connor called her supervisor, Captain Joe Lamb. O'Connor was concerned that Contreras might have escaped from another facility. Captain Lamb also believed that Contreras should still be in jail because of the " 'Federal Hold'" placed on him. He instructed O'Connor to allow only Contreras in the building and to place Contreras in the " 'fingerprint' room," which is a room used for fingerprinting, no-contact visitation, and interrogation, until Captain Lamb's arrival at the jail.

Contreras was buzzed into the courthouse and, without escort, rode the elevator to the jail. O'Connor met him there and led him through the secure jail door and to the fingerprint room. Upon placing Contreras in the room, O'Connor left, closing the door behind her, and went to look for Contreras' personal belongings.

O'Connor was the only employee in the jail at the time. Given that situation, the fingerprint room was the most secure location to leave Contreras alone because a security camera fed live video from the room to dispatch. Thus, Contreras could be monitored for any action that would create a security risk to O'Connor or the jail. The door to the fingerprint room, although capable of being locked, was not locked. Nevertheless, to open the door, the door knob had to be turned " in the opposite direction than is customary." The room did not have bars or any other barriers on the windows.

When Captain Lamb arrived at the jail, he asked Contreras about the status of his Shawnee County warrant and the ICE detainer. Contreras told Captain Lamb he had bonded out on the Shawnee County warrant but simply shrugged his shoulders at the mention of the ICE detainer. Captain Lamb told Contreras to " 'have a seat'" while he checked on Contreras' status. While Contreras [299 Kan. 945] was in the room alone, he made two unsuccessful attempts to turn the door knob and then knocked on the door.

Captain Lamb went to the dispatch area to check on Contreras' status. Via the live video feed he saw Contreras pick up a chair, smash a window, and then jump out of the window. Contreras landed on the ground below. Captain Lamb instructed O'Connor to have dispatch call for an ambulance and then ran downstairs.

After Contreras hit the ground, he attempted to get up and run away, but he could not move because his hips were broken. A Wabaunsee County Sheriff's deputy

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and a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper, who had been dining across the street, responded to the emergency call. When Lamb and the other officers arrived, they saw Contreras on the ground. Contreras' sister was straddling his chest, screaming and crying in Spanish, and her boyfriend approached officers with his hands in his pockets. Because Contreras was a " 'known felon'" and the officers did not know the identities of Contreras' companions, they handcuffed Contreras, his sister, and her boyfriend for the sake of officers' safety until the situation could be assessed. The handcuffs were removed from all three individuals when the medical emergency technicians arrived. By that time, the situation had calmed down, and officers had realized nobody was at ...

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