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Jacinto Rodriguez Cruz, Belem Hernandez Tonil, Jose G. v. Central Iowa Hospital Corporation D/B/A Iowa Methodist Medical Center

December 12, 2012


Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Mary Pat Gunderson, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Doyle, P.J.

The plaintiffs appeal from the district court's grant of summary judgment dismissing their lawsuit for false imprisonment. AFFIRMED.

Heard by Doyle, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.

This case presents the "little-known but apparently widespread" problem of medical repatriation, or the process of extra-judicially deporting seriously ill immigrants by hospitals,*fn1 and the tort of false imprisonment. Based on the undisputed facts in the record, we agree with the district court that the hospital that repatriated the plaintiffs is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the claims against it.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On a summer night in May 2008, Jacinto Rodriguez-Cruz and Jose Rodriguez-Saldana went fishing with some friends. Their car was struck by a semi-truck on the way home. Both men were thrown from the car, causing them to suffer traumatic brain injuries. They were life-flighted to Iowa Methodist Medical Center for treatment.

A social worker at the hospital located the patients' families in Vera Cruz, Mexico. She informed them about the men's conditions and began working with them on a discharge plan. Due to the severity of their injuries, both Cruz and Saldana needed long-term rehabilitation services after their release from the hospital. But two different facilities in Iowa refused to accept them as patients "due to their undocumented status," although both were insured. The social worker turned her focus to a plan to repatriate the men to their native Mexico.

After contacting the United States embassy in Mexico, the social worker located a hospital in Vera Cruz that was willing to accept the men as patients.

She discussed this facility with the families. The hospital chartered a plane and flew Cruz and Saldana to Mexico. They were in stable condition at the time, though both were semi-comatose and mostly unresponsive. The men remained hospitalized for about a month in Vera Cruz before being released into the care of their families.

Cruz and Saldana sued the hospital, alleging it had violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), 42 U.S.C. § 1395dd, which requires all Medicare-participating hospitals with emergency rooms to treat any individual, "whether or not eligible for benefits," who has a medical emergency. They further alleged the hospital had falsely imprisoned them by transporting them to the hospital in Mexico without consent. Finally, Cruz and Saldana's wives sought recovery for loss of consortium.

The hospital filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing it had satisfied "its EMTALA stabilization requirement" and asserting it did not detain or restrain Cruz and Saldana against their will. In response, the plaintiffs dismissed their EMTALA claim, but argued they had generated genuine issues of material fact on the false imprisonment claim. The district court disagreed after a hearing on the matter.

Assuming a confinement had occurred, the court determined "it was Cruz's and Saldana's severe injuries that caused their 'detention' or 'confinement' not the Defendants." The court further determined Cruz and Saldana were not harmed by any alleged confinement, reasoning that the inadequate rehabilitative care at the hospital in Vera Cruz could not be attributed to Iowa Methodist. The court accordingly dismissed the false imprisonment and concomitant loss of consortium claims against the hospital. This appeal followed. II. Scope and Standards of Review.

We review the district court's summary judgment ruling for the correction of errors at law. Mueller v. Wellmark, Inc., 818 N.W.2d 244, 253 (Iowa 2012). Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions on file, and affidavits show there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(3); Mueller, 818 N.W.2d at ...

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