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St. Louis firm handles $662 collection case in West Plains, loses there and again on appeal. Why?


As we all know by now, you can often follow the money to the answer. Sometimes the trail is faint.

A one-car accident in Howell County, which sits on Missouri’s border with Arkansas about halfway across southern Missouri, resulted in a 911 call and the summoning of the Brandsville Fire Protection District (FPD) and the Missouri Highway Patrol and an ambulance. FPD personnel arrived at the scene and assisted with first aid and loading Jerry and Nina Phillips into ambulances.

FPD personnel remained at the scene for a couple of hours, providing traffic control while the wrecker loaded the Phillips’ car.

The FPD sued the Phillipses for an unpaid bill of $662. The bill was issued under the FPD’s ordinance allowing it to charge non-residents of the FPD for services. These charges are authorized by Missouri statute. When the bill wasn’t paid, the FPD sued.

Most of the story appears in the opinion of the Southern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Brandsville Fire Protection District v. Phillips, upholding Judge Donald Henry’s decision in Howell County Circuit Court. But you have to dig a little deeper to figure out why a firm from St. Louis would defend a small collection case in a court three hours away from St. Louis.

The St. Louis firm is Brinker & Doyen, an insurance defense firm. It seems fair to assume that the Phillipses turned the bill over to their insurance company along with their car repair bill. Because the statute authorizing fire protection districts to charges non-residents for their services had not been interpreted by an appellate court, the insurance company apparently saw this case as an opportunity to persuade the court that such charges were improper, or at least to have the court give the statute a narrow interpretation to prevent FPD’s from charging as much as they might otherwise. This situation could be multiplied by thousands, so that the $662 could be millions. The insurance company asked its attorneys to challenge the FPD’s charges.

The statute in question is subsection 12 of section 321.220, which was added by the Missouri General Assembly in 2005, which reads as follows:

The [FPD] board shall have the power to adopt an ordinance, rule, or regulation allowing the district to charge individuals who reside outside of the district, but who receive emergency services within the boundaries of the district, for the actual and reasonable cost of such services. However, such actual and reasonable costs shall not exceed one hundred dollars for responding to each fire call or alarm and two hundred fifty dollars for each hour or a proportional sum for each quarter hour spent in combating a fire or emergency.

The insurance company’s strategy didn’t work, at least for now. The loser has a right to ask the Missouri Supreme Court to take a look at the case, which will delay the Court of Appeals’ decision from becoming final.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

4 responses »

  1. Interesting. I’m surprised it took seven years for the insurance companies to take a shot at the new law. I would have to guess defeating it on some technicality would have improved the law firms image with the industry.

    Reply
  2. Most people don’t know this law exists. How can you avoid this? You get in an accident, and a whole bunch of people show up to ‘help’ and send you a bill. Interesting that residents inside the fire protection district don’t have to pay. I wonder if it would be more appropriate if you are paying some sort of tax or fee for this sort of service back home where you live, but you just happened to be five counties away from your home district, and the home district can’t provide the service where you needed it, if the district that actually provides the service should have to bill the district where you live and pay the tax? I personally was under the mistaken impression that when I paid taxes to support the local fire and ambulance districts, it was to support the infrastructure for a safer community in which to live and work where people didn’t worry about whether or how public services were going to be dispatched when they had an accident. I live in Branson-does this mean that if I go to the Hollister Industrial Park, like I do virtually every day, and have an accident, the Western Taney County Fire Protection District is going to hammer me for a fee in addition to the taxes I pay in Branson? In think the taxes I pay should cover me for more than just the confines of the hamlet where I reside. This law sucks. I can see where somebody living paycheck to paycheck could get bankrupted by something like this as a result of an otherwise minor incident. What if you don’t actually need the service and aren’t insured for the cost? Somebody from some rural fire department shows up and does whatever they think they are supposed to do, and the victim is under the mistaken assumption that this is a public service. This makes me want to further avoid having to travel in the rural parts of the state, besides all of the crooked speed traps, crappy motels, high food and fuel prices, crappy restaurants, and poor cell phone reception, in rural areas, now you have to worry that if you have some sort of accident, not only will you be hurt, not only will the nearest decent real medical help be several counties away, not only will you be at the mercy of whatever local authority decides about what ‘really happened’, but you will have a crowd of Billy Bobs and Jethros dashing to the scene to direct traffic and help you into the ambulance so that their fire protection district can charge you $ 662.00. As for the insurance industry angle, knowing what I know about how insurance companies work, if this is a real cost of an accident, the insurance company won’t care. The cost will simply be reported as experiential and the CAS guys will re-rate everybody in the state for all companies, and if it is bad enough, they might rate you on your probability of traveling where this is a risk, and everybody’s insurance goes up, particularly if you live in a rural area because rural people tend to travel a lot to other rural areas. I suspect that the insurance industry sees this as an open ended uncontrollable cost, where their insureds are supposed to pay whatever the local government pinheads decide to hammer people with. It sounds to me that it would probably be appropriate for the costs of these services to be controlled more closely than by simple caps in the statutes, maybe something like a public service commission which controls rates charged by the utility monopolies can be formed so the public isn’t raped on costs by these local districts. .

    Reply
  3. I like looking at the law and speculating as to the motives of those involved, but I think $250 an hour is a reasonable charge for emergency services. It’d be a bargain here in StL.

    Reply

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