Catholic Hospital’s Defense on Wrongful Death Case: A Fetus is Not a Person

by Bisnar Chase on January 30, 2013

Colorado’s three Catholic bishops have said that they will thoroughly review a wrongful death lawsuit in which a Catholic hospital is defending against a medical malpractice claim by arguing that fetuses are not persons. According to a news report in The Denver Post, Jeremy Stodghill filed a wrongful death lawsuit against St. Thomas More Hospital after his 31-year-old wife, Lori, who was seven months pregnant with twin boys, died from artery blockage on New Year’s Day 2006.

The lawsuit alleges that Lori Stodghill’s obstetrician, Pelham Staples, did not make it to the hospital although on call for emergencies. Also, the suit alleges that none of the medical personnel tried to save the babies with emergency caesarian section. The unborn children ended up dying in the womb, the lawsuit states.

Religious Beliefs or Legal Defense?

The defendant, Catholic Health Initiatives that runs the St. Thomas More Hospital, has argued in this case that the Colorado Wrongful Death Act required the death of a person and that the statute does not include the death of a fetus that was not born or delivered. This argument is ironic coming from the Catholic Church, which has fought for decades to change federal and state laws to protect fetuses as persons. In December 2010, the court found in favor in Catholic Health Initiatives as did the Court of Appeals. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.

The bishops who are only now looking at this case say they were unaware about the issue that was at dispute here. The bishops said in a statement that they believe that human beings are “endowed with dignity” from the time of conception. “No Catholic institution may legitimately work to undermine fundamental human dignity,” they stated.

How Wrongful Death Law Applies to the Unborn

Wrongful death cases, particularly those involving fetuses create plenty of controversy. While individuals are charged with murder when they cause the death of a fetus, that concept becomes debatable when it comes to civil cases, particularly wrongful death cases. In California too, the death of an unborn child or fetus is not actionable under the state’s wrongful death statute. The California Supreme Court has held that “a fetus is not a person within the meaning of our wrongful death statute until there has been a live birth.”

There are number of complex issues when it comes to wrongful death laws regardless of the state. This is why it is critical that families of deceased victims who are seeking justice seek the counsel of an experienced wrongful death attorney who has successfully handled similar cases.

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