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.