On exceptions to accounting.
[102 NJSuper Page 397] General creditors of this insolvent estate protest a preference to a hospital for services rendered "during the last illness." The hospital claims its preference under N.J.S. 3A:24-2:
"The following expenses and debts shall have preference and be paid out of the personal and real estate of the decedent, according to the following order:
2. Administration expenses.
3. Debts entitled to a preference under the laws of the United States.
4. Hospital, physicians' and nurses' bills during the last illness.
5. Judgments entered against the deceased according to the priority of their entries respectively. * * *." (Emphasis supplied)
The claim rests on the following facts: Dr. Paul Jennings, a cardiologist, treated decedent for rheumatic heart disease and coronary heart disease and referred him to the hospital for a "serious" heart operation. The patient was admitted on September 20, 1966 and discharged on November 2, 1966. Thereafter, decedent saw Dr. Jennings on November 8 and December 23, 1966, did not keep an appointment for January 30, 1967, and died on January 31, 1967. Decedent was 48 years old on the date of death. The cause of death noted on the death certificate was "coronary occlusion, coronary insufficiency, rheumatic heart disease." Dr. Jennings stated his patient continued to have chest pain and symptoms of heart failure, episodes of elevated temperature and coughs, and that his condition "deteriorated after discharge"; that on December 23, 1966 he still suffered from rheumatic heart disease and coronary heart disease and was continued on digitalis, penicillin and diuretic and coronary dilation; that "he never recovered from the condition" for which he was sent to the hospital; that between November 8 and December 23, 1966 "he got worse"; that no other conditions intervened between discharge from the hospital and death -- "it was the same thing"; that he died of acute coronary occlusion and the rheumatic heart disease, which complicated each other, lessening chances of a successful operation; that following discharge the doctor advised him to rest at home and did not know he was working at his plumbing business.
The widow said her husband, a plumber, employed one full-time man and one part-time man; that at the time of his discharge from the hospital he "didn't look like himself"
and experienced great difficulty in walking; that he remained at home and used the phone for his business, and only went to supply houses and to make job estimates; that following his discharge he always complained, didn't sleep and had chest and arm pains; that he was limited in his activities for about six months prior to the operation but he did even less after the operation; that her daughter accompanied decedent on his visits to the doctor; and that he had suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood.
Witnesses for the general creditors testified that decedent purchased plumbing supplies after his discharge; that his volume was not as much following his discharge as before -- "maybe half"; that his physical involvement was less following his discharge and that the plumbing houses helped him load supplies because "all knew his condition."
The question presented is whether the services rendered by the hospital were services "during the last illness," within the contemplation of N.J.S. 3A:24-2, taking into consideration the fact that the decedent lived for three months after his discharge from the hospital, resumed the operation of his plumbing business, visited his doctor only twice before his death, and died suddenly.
The fundamental canon of statutory construction is to divine the intent of the Legislature. I find no reported case in New Jersey dealing with the meaning of "during the last illness," the phrase in N.J.S. 3A:24-2.
"The order of payment prescribed by the common law was, first, funeral charges and the expenses of administration; second, debts of record; third, debts by specialty; and, fourth, simple contract debts. Haines v. Price, Spen. 480; Grif. Reg. 1281, ...