Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Alaska Medical Care Reimbursement Statute Extends to Former Prisoners; State Refuses to Pay Part of Medical Malpractice Judgment

On June 24, 2011, the Alaska Supreme Court held that state law allows the Alaska Department of Corrections (ADOC) to seek reimbursement of medical costs from former prisoners.

Dewell Pearce was an ADOC prisoner from 1994 to 2008. He suffered from a number of medical conditions that required outside care between 2001 and 2008, at a cost of more than $150,000.

In March 2008, Pearce prevailed on a medical malpractice claim against the state and was awarded $369,277.88. Rather than pay the full judgment, however, the state “withheld $140,847 as claimed reimbursement for Pearce’s outside medical care unrelated to the injuries giving rise to the malpractice suit.”

The state relied on AS 33.30.028(a), which provides that “the liability for payment of the costs of medical ... care provided or made available to a prisoner ... is ... the responsibility of the prisoner....”

In July 2008, after Pearce was released from custody, the state sought a declaration as to its reimbursement right under AS 33.30.028. During the course of that action “the State agreed ... that its claims should not include medical expenses incurred outside” the statute of limitations, and reduced its claim to $137,000.

The superior court denied the state’s claim in June 2009, concluding that the statute’s reference to “prisoner” did not encompass former prisoners. Since Pearce had been released and was no longer a prisoner, “the court determined he had no liability to the State for his previous medical expenses.”

The Alaska Supreme Court reversed. Applying principles of statutory construction, the Court interpreted “‘prisoner’ to include former prisoners for the application of AS 33.30.028.” It also held that remand was necessary for the superior court to address Pearce’s argument that the statute does not allow reimbursement for outside medical care.

“Pearce’s reading of AS 33.30.028 is not implausible, and the statute’s relevant language may be ambiguous,” the Court wrote. However, “in the absence of full briefing on the issue,” the Supreme Court left the matter “for the superior court to determine in the first instance.”

Finally, the Court also left “to the superior court any considerations that the State’s recovery, if allowed, may be subject to a claim for attorney’s fees and costs incurred by Pearce in establishing what might be considered a common fund the State has essentially liened for its recovery.” See: State of Alaska v. Hendricks-Pearce, 254 P.3d 1088 (Alaska 2011).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

State of Alaska v. Hendricks-Pearce