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Sillery v. Fagan

Decided: July 24, 1972.


Paul R. Huot, J.d.c.


The question which this case presents is based upon a well established theory, namely, that it is the husband's responsibility to provide "necessities" for his wife. Specifically, the issue is whether a wife can be held liable for medical necessities provided for her while giving birth to a child, when no written agreement had been entered into by her with the hospital or its staff and her husband was with her, living at home.

The facts in this case have been stipulated. Defendants Maria Fagan and James Fagan were living as husband and wife at the time services were rendered. They are now separated and defendant husband is not before the court. While defendants lived together defendant Jams Fagan gave his wife approximately $60 a week for household expenses and occasionally paid other household expenses.

From June 25 to July 2, 1969 defendant Maria Fagan was a patient in the Englewood Hospital. Medical services were rendered in connection with the birth of her sixth child in the amount of $250. The amounts are stipulated to be fair and reasonable.

When Mrs. Fagan originally entered the hospital there was no written agreement concerning the charges for the services rendered to her. All bills in this matter were in the name of her husband, James Fagan, but demand for payment was made upon Maria Fagan before the institution of this suit.

The question raised is whether a woman may be held liable for medical necessities provided to her at a time when she is married and living with her husband.


The landmark case in this area is of French vintage and was decided in 1659. It was translated and used as the basis of the English decisions. Manby v. Scott , 1 Sid. 109, was brought in the Exchequer Chamber on assumpsit for goods supplied to defendant's wife after defendant had given notice

that he would not pay for them. The court held for defendant, but the case is important because it stated the underlying theory which became the cornerstone of the common law rule governing the responsibility of a husband for his wife. The case was cited as authority in England because, it is said, it involved the two sexes and "related to acts of wives, who are, by the law of this country and the law of God, accounted identical with their husbands * * *."

I. Whether every law but our own imposes on a husband the duty of maintaining his wife? The laws of God, of nature, and of nations, tend greatly to promote and encourage matrimony, as the cause to which man owes the successive propagation and continuance of his race; and it never can be supposed that laws which encourage such a state, would place either of the parties to it beyond their care, or expose them to the evils arising from separation, from cold and hunger. Holy scripture enjoins husbands, quod amore afficiant uxores suas. Therefore any neglect of wives can be considered in no more favorable light than a contempt of this ordinance, which, however, it is emphatically our duty to observe, emphatically because, before the sanction of divine authority, it was a law of nature, written on the hearts of all men, of which the practice of all nations is sufficient testimony. And though hardly any law gives the husband so much power on marriage as our own (the civil law, for instance, did not), nevertheless all laws oblige the husband to maintain his wife.

In Manby v. Scott , the court sets forth reasons for the husband's liability for necessaries to the wife:

For nobody will dispute that usually the contracts of wives are void, as all their power is transferred to the husband by their marriage. Yet, as to matters necessary "ad sustentationem vitae," this power is not transferred, but, on the contrary, established and made absolute in the wife by means of the marriage. This is founded on the necessity of the thing * * * that our law imposes a liability on persons in cases where * * * the support of families * * * are concerned * * *

The court in Manby v. Scott then sets down numerous reasons why wives should be supplied necessaries:

1. As our law gives all that the wife has to her husband on marriage, if wives shall not be allowed to obtain food and other necessaries,

wives will be in a worse condition than those who commit treason or felony.

5. If husbands shall not be bound by the contracts of their wives for necessaries, without their real assent, husbands may abandon their wives without just cause, when they desire to have others, and thus cause them to perish; and therefore it is more consonant to reason to say, that husbands shall be liable for the contracts of their wives for necessaries, on an assumpsit in law; or that, by marriage, a power is given to wives by the law to take all things necessary for support, by which contracts the husband shall be, during the marriage, irrevocably bound. And thus shall a security be provided for the wife against being stripped on each ungrounded suspicion, and of being starved on each wanton displeasure of her husband.

Manby v. Scott does base the theory on the common law necessity to protect women because of their lack of rights under the law: "If the law willed to empower wives to contract, the same law would also have given them property, that they might retain."

The modern English cases which are most frequently referred to on this subject are Montague v. Benedict , 3 B. and C. 631 (1825), and Seaton v. Benedict , 5 Bing. 28 (1828), which follow the doctrine or theory handed down in Manby v. Scott.


The term "necessaries" in the law of husband and wife has been defined in many different ways according to the circumstances and conditions of the parties involved.

Generally it may be said that a wife has the implied authority as agent of her husband, during his absence, to bind him for medical services which he would have been obligated to have supplied, but that she cannot bind him when he is under no obligation to furnish such services. [71 A.L.R. 659]

The type of medical services involved is not the overriding factor; rather, it is the status of the relationship of the husband and wife. In Vaughan v. Mansfield , 229 Mass. 352, 118 N.E. 652 (Mass. Sup. Jud. Ct. 1918), the court

held the wife to have implied authority, as her husband's agent, to contract for medical services for herself and her child, which are reasonably necessary, in the absence of proof that she has been instructed by him not to run such bills. In Daly's Astoria Sanatorium v. Blair , 161 Misc. 716, 291 N.Y.S. 1006 (Mun. Ct. 1936), the court held in an action by a private hospital (against a husband living apart from his wife) that a prima facie case was made out by the hospital upon a showing that medical services were furnished to the wife. Mere proof of separation of husband and wife does not relieve the husband of liability for medical services rendered to the wife. In Overton v. Nordyke , 10 La. App. 317, 120 ...

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