Colo. bishops to review health system's fidelity to Church
By Carl Bunderson
Colo. bishops to review health system's fidelity to Church

.- Colorado's three bishops will examine litigation surrounding Catholic Health Initiatives, after its lawyers allegedly argued in a wrongful-death lawsuit that human fetuses are not persons.

“The Catholic bishops of Colorado are not able to comment on ongoing legal disputes. However, we will undertake a full review of this litigation, and of the policies and practices of Catholic Health Initiatives to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” the bishops said Jan. 24.

“Catholic Health Initiatives has been accused by some of undermining the Catholic position on human life in the course of litigation," they added. "Today, representatives of Catholic Health Initiatives assured us of their intention to observe the moral and ethical obligations of the Catholic Church.”

In 2006, Lori Stodghill and her two unborn children died at a hospital operated by Catholic Health Initiatives. Lawyers for the health system argued that Colorado's wrongful death legislation does not apply to fetuses.

Attorney David Woodruff, one of those representing the plaintiff, told CNA Jan. 24 that “a lawyer doesn't typically take a position on behalf of a client without the client approving it.”

“I can't really speak for the relationship there, what actually occurred between lawyers and adjusters – I wasn't there and it would be inappropriate for me to comment – but we as lawyers aren't supposed to be conveying a message in the world that doesn't directly reflect our client's wishes...that's why it's so surprising.”

In their statement Thursday, the Colorado bishops said that from “the moment of conception, human beings are endowed with dignity and with fundamental rights, the most foundational of which is life.”

“Catholics and Catholic institutions have the duty to protect and foster human life, and to witness to the dignity of the human person – particularly to the dignity of the unborn,” they said.

“No Catholic institution may legitimately work to undermine fundamental human dignity.”

On Jan. 1, 2006, Jeremy Stodghill took his wife Lori, 28 weeks pregnant, to St. Thomas More Hospital's emergency room in Cañon City. She was complaining of nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. There, she suffered a heart attack due to a blood clot which traveled to her lungs.

Her obstetrician, Pelham Staples, was on-call that day, but failed to arrive at the hospital. Both Lori and her unborn sons, Samuel and Zachary, died.

A nurse listened for the boys' heartbeats, and not hearing any, doctors decided against performing an emergency C-section.

Stodghill chose to sue the hospital, its owner Catholic Health Initiatives, Staples, and the emergency room doctor for the wrongful death of his family members.

In defending Catholic Health Initiatives, their lawyers have argued that no act could have saved Lori's life. But they have also argued that the 28-week old fetuses are not human persons.

“Catholic Health argued...that it could not be held liable for the wrongful death of a fetus, because a fetus is not a person until it is born alive,” according to a legal document filed Sept. 27, 2012, by Stodghill's attorneys.

Only after Catholic Health Initiatives was the first defendant to advance this argument – that a human fetus is not a person – did the two physicians raise the same contention, Beth Krulewitch, one of Stodgehill's attorneys, wrote to Colorado's appellate court Aug. 10, 2011.

According to the Westword, one of the defendants' lawyers, Jason Langley, argued in a brief that the judges “should not overturn the long-standing rule in Colorado that the term 'person,' as is used in the Wrongful Death Act, encompasses only individuals born alive...therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses.”

In a Jan. 24 statement, Catholic Health Initiatives stated that, “In this case, St. Thomas More, Centura Health and Catholic Health Initiatives, as Catholic organizations, are in union with the moral teachings of the Church.”

Catholic Health Initiatives did not answer specific questions, though they added that “first and foremost, our heartfelt sympathies have always been with the Stodghill family as a result of these tragic circumstances.”

Stodghill's attorney's have argued that because the fetuses were viable – which none of the defendants has disputed – their father should be able to sue for their wrongful death.

Catholic Health Initiatives have won two cases in the saga so far.

On Dec. 5, 2010, Fremont County District Court judge David Thorson dismissed Stodghill's lawsuit. Thorson said that “a fetus is not a 'person' for purposes of wrongful death liability,” according to an appeal filed by Stodghill's attorneys.

Stodghill appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals. That three-judge panel decided on Aug. 16, 2012, to affirm the district court judge's decision. The appellate judges affirmed because they found there was “a lack of evidence” the fetuses died because of negligence on the doctors' part.

Following this decision, Stodghill has appealed to the state's supreme court. He asked that the Colorado Supreme Court decide “the issue that the Court of Appeals refused to decide,” whether physicians are immune to malpractice suits when their negligence leads to the death of a viable fetus before its birth.

Stodghill is awaiting to hear whether or not they decide to hear the case – which has significant implications for the liability of physicians when a viable fetus in their care dies before birth.

Tags: Colorado Bishops

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