If Someone Ignores Your Healthcare Wishes, Can You Sue?
If you've done end of life planning, you likely have a document in which you appoint someone to make medical decisions for you if you cannot make them yourself. It also probably communicates your wishes regarding medical treatment in case you cannot make those decisions yourself. Taking this step should be enough to ensure your end of life wishes are followed, but sadly, this is not always the case.
In a recent court case out of Morris County, New Jersey, a family is suing a hospital who allegedly resuscitated a woman against her wishes. The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiff, Suzanne Stica, had signed “do not resuscitate” and “do not intubate” orders prior to her admission to Morristown Medical Center. During her stay, Ms. Stica went into cardiac arrest and, despite her previous instructions, was resuscitated and intubated. Ms. Stica survived another six months during which time her quality of life was severely diminished. The hospital moved for summary judgment, a legal mechanism to end a lawsuit.
The judge denied the motion and indicated that there may be a cause of action in court for “wrongful prolongation of life.” This notion of “wrongful prolonged life” is a new notion in New Jersey. Courts have historically recognized wrongful death, wrongful life, and wrongful birth as valid causes of action, but wrongful prolonged life is fairly new to the scene.
So, what does this mean for those of us trying our best to make sure our and our loved one's end-of-life wishes are heeded? It means that we must continue to be diligent. It means that we must make sure our documents accurately reflect our wishes. It means that we need to give copies of these documents to our physicians and bring them with us is we ever find our selveshaving to stay in a hospital. And it means that we need to communicate our wishes to our physicians. This means not merely handing your doctor the document but having a conversation with your healthcare provider to make sure you're wishes are understood. While none of these methods is foolproof, they could help ensure that you don't find yourself in a situation where your wishes are not followed.
It also likely means that doctors and hospitals are more likely to pay very close attention to legal documents that express wishes, even if those wishes are not clear or they have changed recently. It is therefore more important than ever that you have healthcare decision making documents in place, especially one appointing a person to make decisions for you. There is a split in opinion about the merits of a document naming specific health care wishes – they have a tendency to age poorly as technology and a person's preferences evolve, even though they do provide very clear and specific guidance and reduce the need for uncomfortable conversations.
Whether you have a loved one who you believe has had their end-of-life wishes ignored, or you are just trying to make sure your own healthcare documents are in order, please give us a call so we can help you.
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