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Lee v. Dunklee

Supreme Court of Arizona

June 25, 1958

Annie Williams LEE, formerly known as Annie Williams, Appellant,
v.
Carol DUNKLEE; Jessie Evelyn Bosse; Cecelia Ainsa; Elmer G. King; Norman A. Ross; and James E. Lindsay, James O. Lecky and David P. Kimball, formerly constituting the Board of Supervisors of Maricopa County, Arizona; Maricopa County, Arizona, a body politic. Appellees.

[84 Ariz. 261] Ira J. Bergman, Phoenix, for appellant.

Shimmel, Hill, Cavanagh & Kleindienst, and John E. Savoy, Phoenix, Charles C. Stidham, County Atty., and J. J. Caretto, Deputy County Atty., Phoenix, for appellees.

JOHNSON, Justice.

Appeal by plaintiff from a judgment of dismissal entered on an order sustaining a motion to dismiss of defendant, Maricopa County, and certain of its employees.

The complaint alleged that Laurence Williams, infant son of the plaintiff, age seven months, was admitted for treatment to the hospital maintained and operated by the County of Maricopa, who accepted and rendered hospital and medical services both to indigent and paying patients. The complaint did not allege that the deceased was a paying patient. On October 22, 1951, the infant was severaly scalded or burned in the pediatric ward while being treated by an attendant, due to the negligence of an attendant, and died a few days later.

The motion to dismiss was sustained on the ground the complaint does not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action. The question is whether a county

Page 1118

which operates a general hospital and imposes a charge for the care and treatment is immune from liability in tort for the negligence of its agents.

[84 Ariz. 262] Plaintiff contends that because the statute of this state (§ 17-348, A.C.A.1939 [1] ) specifically authorizes the hospital to admit pay patients, in so doing the hospital operates in a proprietary capacity and rule of governmental immunity is not applicable.

Plaintiff relies principally upon the cases of Henderson v. Twin Falls County, 56 Idaho 124, 50 P.2d 597, 101 A.L.R. 1151, and Suwannee County Hospital Corporation v. Golden, Fla., 56 So.2d 911; however, we agree with the disposition the Supreme Court of New Mexico made of those cases in Elliott v. Lea County, 58 N.M. 147, 267 P.2d 131, 132, wherein the court said:

'* * * The decisions in those cases rested upon the distinction between governmental and proprietary functions. The court held, in each case, that in supplying hospital care to paying patients the hospitals were acting in a proprietary and corporate capacity, and therefore liable to their patients for the negligence of its employees. The above cases represent decidedly the minority rule and we refuse to follow them.'

See also 25 A.L.R.2d 229.

We hold with the majority rule that the operation of a county hospital is a governmental function, and that the county as an arm of the state is immune from suit and liability by indigent patients for the negligence of its officers or employees, 20 C.J.S. Counties § 220, and 14 Am.Jur., Counties, §§ 48 and 49; and that the imposition of a charge for service on those able to pay is not inconsistent with the exercise of a governmental function. Waterman v. Los Angeles County General Hospital, 123 Cal.App.2d 143, 266 P.2d 221; Talley v. Northern San Diego County Hospital Dist., 41 Cal.2d 33, 257 P.2d 22; and 25 A.L.R.2d 229, and cases cited.

Plaintiff also contends that the doctrine of immunity is not applicable if the county proceeded to build, maintain and operate a hospital when there was no mandatory duty imposed by law upon it compelling such action.

Section 17-401, A.C.A.1939, [2] provides:

'The boards of supervisors in each county of the state shall have the sole and exclusive jurisdiction to provide for the hospitalization and medical care of ...


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