On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County.
Approved for Publication March 13, 1996.
Before Judges King, Kleiner and Humphreys. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kleiner, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kleiner
The opinion of the court was delivered byKLEINER, J.A.D.
Plaintiff Hampton Hospital sued defendants Joseph Bresan and Lynn Bresan in the Cape May County Special Civil Part to collect $1,504.68, the balance of a bill for hospital services rendered to their son, age seventeen. Defendants filed a counterclaim under the Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -48. After defendants successfully removed the action to the Law Division, plaintiff filed a summary judgment motion contending, in part, that defendants were not entitled to relief under the Act. The motion Judge concluded that N.J.S.A. 56:8-2 does not encompass services performed by a hospital and granted plaintiff's motion. The issue has not been previously addressed in any reported decision in this State. We conclude that the motion Judge correctly granted summary judgment and we affirm.
Encompassed in defendants' appeal is their contention that prior to the summary judgment motion, the motion Judge improperly dismissed a count of their counterclaim which sought an award of punitive damages. That issue is subsumed in the broader issue of a hospital's liability for consumer fraud. Our affirmance of the summary judgment obviates a determination on the narrower issue. On appeal, defendants also contend that the motion Judge erred in failing to advise them to amend their pleadings to add a count for damages predicated upon the concept of duress. We will address that contention in part four of this opinion.
The underlying material facts of defendants' consumer fraud claim are undisputed and the parties stipulated to the motion Judge that the motion was "ripe for summary judgment." Because there are certain interpretations of those facts which are contradictory, we shall view the facts most favorable to defendants, who opposed the motion, as is required on appeal in a review of a decision granting summary judgment. See Antheunisse v. Tiffany & Co., Inc., 229 N.J. Super. 399, 402, 551 A.2d 1006 (App. Div. 1988), certif. denied, 115 N.J. 59 (1989).
Lawrence Bresan, defendants' seventeen-year-old son, attempted suicide in May 1991 by ingesting a large quantity of over-the-counter sleeping pills. Defendant Lynn Bresan, Lawrence's mother, arrived home shortly thereafter and took Lawrence to the emergency room of a local hospital, where he received medical treatment and was released.
Lawrence met with a psychiatrist, who recommended that he seek treatment for his depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse. The psychiatrist recommended that Lawrence participate in a thirty-day rehabilitation program. Defendant Lynn Bresan telephoned plaintiff and scheduled a meeting with its staff.
On May 12, 1991, defendants took Lawrence to plaintiff's hospital. Lawrence and defendants completed a number of standard forms, including a Request for Voluntary Admission and the Voluntary Admission Notice. The Voluntary Admission Notice provides:
All persons admitted as voluntary patients or converted to voluntary status have the following rights with regard to requesting a discharge:
1. All voluntary patients have the right to request discharge from Hampton Hospital by giving 48 hours notice either orally or in writing. Oral notice must be directed to a member of the patient's treatment team or to nursing staff.
2. Upon receipt of the notice, Hampton staff have 48 hours to assess the patient's condition and make appropriate plans for discharge or continued treatment. If the patient's condition so warrants, Hampton staff may seek involuntary commitment.
Lawrence was subsequently admitted to plaintiff's hospital as a voluntary patient. His hospital stay was insured under his mother's health insurance policy, which provided for up to thirty days of treatment.
Lawrence's recovery was progressing nicely for the first three weeks. However, because Lawrence's eighteenth birthday was approaching and he wanted to be at home on his birthday, he decided to leave the hospital prior to the completion of his thirty-day treatment plan. On June 3, 1991, Lawrence signed a PatientRequest to Terminate Inpatient Treatment. Twenty-four hours later, Lawrence withdrew his request, agreeing to remain in treatment.
Defendants contend that Lawrence was coerced into staying at the hospital until his insurance coverage ran out in an effort by the hospital to increase its gross income receipts. Lawrence certified that the orderlies who had been assisting in his treatment began to behave differently after he requested a discharge. He claimed, "They told me I was no good, that I was wasting everyone's time, that I was resisting treatment. They preyed on my fears and vulnerability to get me to agree to stay until our insurance ran out." Lawrence also alleged that Carol Whiteside, a representative of the hospital, called his mother and told her that if he ...