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Curing our hospitals of a bad habit


An hospital ward

I read a story last week which piqued my interest. On June 12, the High Court in Anambra State presided over by Hon. Justice Okuma, ruled that a particularly bad habit whereby corporate institutions, especially hospitals, prevent their customers/clients/patients from exiting their premises in order to force they or their families to complete payment, amounts to false imprisonment.

Justice Okuma made this ruling in a case brought by Ngozi Osegbo, and her husband, Chinonso Osegbo, against The Registered Trustees of the Synod of the Diocese on the Niger. The case was assigned Suit number 0/255/2017, and it is important to note that though it was a state High Court, meaning that this judgement only applies in Anambra, it can be used as precedent in other jurisdictions in future.

The Osegbos had taken their 11-month old son to Iyi Enu Mission Hospital, which is owned by the Synod, for treatment. Unfortunately the child died. Following the death of the baby, the hospital rather coldly locked up Mrs. Osegbo and insisted that she would not be allowed to leave until all outstanding payments had been cleared. This detention lasted for more than 10 hours despite all entreaties made by the Osegbos to allow them put themselves together, grieve for their dead child, and then seek funds with which to clear the debt. Talk about a hospital with a human face…

After this ordeal, the couple did what I consider the right thing and approached the court for the following reliefs:

They sought the court to declare that the hospital owed Baby Marvellous Osegbo a duty of care, a duty which they breached, and which resulted in his untimely death at less than a year old;

They also asked the court to declare that the action of the hospital’s security in preventing their departure from the hospital, and threat of grievous bodily harm with guns, amounted to false imprisonment and assault.

I love the next part – they demanded general damages in the sum of five hundred million naira and 35% interest per annum of the judgment sum from the date of judgment until final liquidation.

In his judgement, Justice Okuma held that the Osegbos had proved their case. He specifically talked about the fact that the Osegbos had been held at gun point, and said that, upon examination of the evidence, the evidence given by the couple was consistent with their pleadings, and was not challenged under cross examination by the Defendants.

Justice Okuma also frowned at the manner upon which the said hospital bill was recovered, adding that the detention of Mrs. Osegbo for 10 hours amounted to false imprisonment.

I will have to quote the Judge directly here, “The act of the Defendants in detaining the first plaintiff for ten hours in the circumstance of this case no doubt constitutes acts of false imprisonment. I must deprecate the uncivil and indecent way and manner the defendants recovered the said hospital bill.

“It is not expected that the first defendant particularly will engage itself in such uncivil and illegal means of debt recovery. Much as this court recognises the fear in disappearance of patients when it comes to payment of hospital bills or debts generally, I do not find it sufficient to justify illegality that two wrongs do not make a right.”

Finally, Justice Okuma awarded the sum of ₦500,000 against the Registered Trustees of the Synod of the Diocese on the Niger that owns Iyi Enu Mission Hospital together with 35% interest on the judgement sum until final liquidation of same.

Justice Okuma gave a great judgement, one which for me touches on an issue that I have worried about for a bit – the use of force in most transactions in Nigeria.

There can be no doubt that Iyi Enu Hospital, an establishment that is supposed to have a human face, assaulted and then falsely imprisoned Mrs. Osegbo, and for what? A few coins? This habit of hospitals preventing patients from leaving as a result of unpaid bills has become an epidemic. Almost as bad as that of them refusing treatment until they see money.

I can only hope that hospitals in Nigeria will be forced to do the right thing now because they know they can be sued and damages will be paid to the affected parties. They should not prey on the desperation and ignorance of individuals.

However, as a next step, we also have to remember that many of these hospitals are private businesses. The system ought to facilitate the process of debt recovery for them to ensure they also get their fees. I concede that many are acting out of experience, but there are more civil manners in which debt recovery can be made from discharged patients, and this brings us to another issue, identity management. We have to be honest and admit that what probably forced hospitals into this is the knowledge that some patients can simply disappear. The identity problem in Nigeria will be the focus of a future write-up. For now, I want to celebrate, however belatedly, with the Osegbos.

In this article:
Cheta Nwanze
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