Death doesn't deter county from seeking payment

Widow who chooses not to sue saddled with lawsuit

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published August 24, 2006, 12:08 p.m.)

Six years after a widow's husband died at Lakeland Health Care Center, Walworth County now says it wants her to pay $5,000 for his care.

Marion Barker, 88, received a summons from the county a few weeks ago that says she owes money for Brent Barker's last month and a few days of care in the county-run nursing home. The small claims case was filed in June.

Brent Barker died at 79 on July 4, 2000, hours after tripping over another patient in the hallway of the home and landing on a box fan, said Chuck Gerhartz, a friend who was visiting Brent and witnessed the incident.

Gerhartz then told Marion to sue the county for wrongful death, to at least get it on the record. At a hearing with Lakeland's Board of Trustees, she decided not to, he said.

Her statute of limitations to sue ran out about three years ago, according to several attorneys who work with municipal and civil cases.

Now the county wants money Marion Barker says she never got a bill for, said Gerhartz who has known Marion most of her life.

"If she owed a bill, she should have received a bill every month," Gerhartz said, noting that's what other businesses would do. "Why the hell wouldn't you send out a bill?"

Marion Barker, a village of East Troy trustee from 1988-90, was caught off guard when she was served with the court action, Gerhartz said.

"Nobody said one word in six years," about the bill, Gerhartz said. "Ever since they had that hearing, everything was over with. I think (the county) waited until the time limit ran out on her ability to sue them. I really think that's what they did."

Her attorney and close friend, Linda Gray, didn't know why the county waited to file the case. She did not believe there was a conspiracy.

County officials say Marion Barker was notified about the bill and say the collection process following standard procedures.

The county's corporation counsel office, overworked and understaffed, didn't get around to following through with payment recovery until recently, said Michael Cotter, assistant corporation counsel.

Cotter said the county didn't file the suit because Marion Barker could no longer sue it.

"There's no way that we would lay in the weeds waiting for that statute to run out and then file," he said. "Our statute of limitations to collect was running out."

Three civil attorneys, who wished not to be identified, said Lakeland Health Care Center's Board of Trustees could easily relieve Marion Barker of the repayment obligation, if there is one.

Waiting six years to try and collect through the courts is irresponsible for the county, one attorney said.

"It acts as a detriment to all of the taxpayers," the attorney said. "The government is like any other business. If the money is due now, they have to do something to collect it and to do so within a reasonable period of time."

"It would surprise me greatly if this truly was a product of a large bureaucracy," another attorney said, "that the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing."

Elkhorn-based attorney Steven Koch was hired to represent county and try collect the $5,000.

He said Barker's case is one of many he's working on for the county. Koch feels the county has evidence to prove it asked for repayment for Brent Barker's bill, but it remains unpaid.

"I wouldn't bring it otherwise," he said.

"If there is a reason to go after the (uncollected) money, I don't know if it's fair to the other taxpayers to let them absorb that amount," Cotter said.

Supervisor Bob Arnold, chair of the board of trustees, said the county is following its collection procedures.

"If we've got money coming and we feel there's a place to collect it, we go after it," Arnold said. "This is just being processed in the usual manner."

Attempts to reach Marion Barker were unsuccessful.

She told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist that the situation is driving her crazy because it is stirring everything up again.

"It just brings back all of the memories and all the stuff," Gray said. "It's just a hard thing (for Marion)."

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