D’Ascoli v. Stieh

A-2927-98T3, 1999 WL 1140766 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: December 10, 1999

CONTRACTS; ENFORCEMENT; CONFLICTS OF LAW—A Pennsylvania law limiting personal liability of workers compensation claimants under a Pennsylvania plan does not bar a physician who provided services in New Jersey to a Pennsylvania resident from seeking to collect uninsured charges from the injured worker.

A Pennsylvania resident, employed by a Pennsylvania employer, injured her ankle at her Pennsylvania work site during the course of her employment. There was no question that her workers’ compensation claim was governed by Pennsylvania law. There was also no question that Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation law “bars a medical provider from seeking to hold the employee liable for all or any portion of the medical costs incurred for treating a compensable injury, that provider’s exclusive payment remedy being against the insurer.” New Jersey’s law does not contain that prohibition. Therefore, it was clear that had the worker obtained medical treatment for her ankle injury in Pennsylvania, she would not have been liable for a claim by her physician. But, she sought the services of a New Jersey doctor. Surgery was required. While it was clear that the injury was compensable, the patient also had signed a patient information form directly below language that indicated that the patient was directly responsible for payment of the fee irrespective of insurance coverage, “it being the patient’s responsibility, not the physician’s to deal with the insurance company.” Prior to the actual surgery, the patient signed another document showing the cost of the procedures. The doctor submitted the bills to the patient’s compensation carrier but was not paid in full. The patient refused to pay the balance due and the doctor sued. The patient’s sole defense was that because the injury for which she was treated was a compensable injury under Pennsylvania’s law, “the immunization afforded her by that law from personal responsibility for payment of treatment costs renders her agreement with [a doctor] unenforceable.” The Court, however, did not view this as a workers’ compensation action and therefore it did not “implicate any direct issue involving the extent of a worker’s remedy under workers’ compensation laws for the extent of their exclusivity. The action before us is a simple contract action to enforce a contract entirely legal and enforceable where made.” Therefore, the relevant choice of law issue before the Court was whether the laws of New Jersey or those of Pennsylvania controlled the contract. Inasmuch that the agreement was made in New Jersey and the services were both anticipated to be and were actually performed in New Jersey by a doctor practicing and licensed in New Jersey, the one disparate element, namely the patient’s out-of-state residence, was inconsequential to the analysis. Unfortunately for the patient, the Court found no reported decision in which New Jersey courts had withheld enforcement of a valid contract made and performed in New Jersey and with which it had the primary nexus simply because it violated another state’s public policy. Nor did the Court find the expression of any such rule of law elsewhere. Fundamentally, in the Court’s view, a “New Jersey licensed physician who renders medical services in this State should be able to rely on the contract laws of this State in seeking payment.”