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In Malpractice Case, Catholic Hospital Argues Fetuses Aren’t People

Posted by on Aug. 21, 2014 at 1:37 AM
  • 20 Replies

Lori Stodghill was 31-years old, seven-months pregnant with twin boys and feeling sick when she arrived at St. Thomas More hospital in Cañon City on New Year’s Day 2006. She was vomiting and short of breath and she passed out as she was being wheeled into an examination room. Medical staff tried to resuscitate her but, as became clear only later, a main artery feeding her lungs was clogged and the clog led to a massive heart attack. Stodghill’s obstetrician, Dr. Pelham Staples, who also happened to be the obstetrician on call for emergencies that night, never answered a page. His patient died at the hospital less than an hour after she arrived and her twins died in her womb.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Stodghill’s husband Jeremy, a prison guard, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of himself and the couple’s then-two-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Staples should have made it to the hospital, his lawyers argued, or at least instructed the frantic emergency room staff to perform a caesarian-section. The procedure likely would not have saved the mother, a testifying expert said, but it may have saved the twins.

The lead defendant in the case is Catholic Health Initiatives, the Englewood-based nonprofit that runs St. Thomas More Hospital as well as roughly 170 other health facilities in 17 states. Last year, the hospital chain reported national assets of $15 billion. The organization’s mission, according to its promotional literature, is to “nurture the healing ministry of the Church” and to be guided by “fidelity to the Gospel.” Toward those ends, Catholic Health facilities seek to follow the Ethical and Religious Directives of the Catholic Church authored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Those rules have stirred controversy for decades, mainly for forbidding non-natural birth control and abortions. “Catholic health care ministry witnesses to the sanctity of life ‘from the moment of conception until death,’” the directives state. “The Church’s defense of life encompasses the unborn.”

The directives can complicate business deals for Catholic Health, as they can for other Catholic health care providers, partly by spurring political resistance. In 2011, the Kentucky attorney general and governor nixed a plan in which Catholic Health sought to merge with and ultimately gain control of publicly funded hospitals in Louisville. The officials were reacting to citizen concerns that access to reproductive and end-of-life services would be curtailed. According to The Denver Post, similar fears slowed the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth’s plan over the last few years to buy out Exempla Lutheran Medical Center and Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in the Denver metro area.

But when it came to mounting a defense in the Stodghill case, Catholic Health’s lawyers effectively turned the Church directives on their head. Catholic organizations have for decades fought to change federal and state laws that fail to protect “unborn persons,” and Catholic Health’s lawyers in this case had the chance to set precedent bolstering anti-abortion legal arguments. Instead, they are arguing state law protects doctors from liability concerning unborn fetuses on grounds that those fetuses are not persons with legal rights.

As Jason Langley, an attorney with Denver-based Kennedy Childs, argued in one of the briefs he filed for the defense, the court “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. Colorado state courts define ‘person’ under the Act to include only those born alive. Therefore Plaintiffs cannot maintain wrongful death claims based on two unborn fetuses.”

The Catholic Health attorneys have so far won decisions from Fremont County District Court Judge David M. Thorson and now-retired Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Arthur Roy.

In September, the Stodghills’ Aspen-based attorney Beth Krulewitch working with Denver-based attorney Dan Gerash appealed the case to the state Supreme Court. In their petition they argued that Judges Thorson and Roy overlooked key facts and set bad legal precedent that would open loopholes in Colorado’s malpractice law, relieving doctors of responsibility to patients whose viable fetuses are at risk.

Whether the high court decides to take the case, kick it back down to the appellate court for a second review or accept the decisions as they stand, the details of the arguments the lawyers involved have already mounted will likely renew debate about Church health care directives and trigger sharp reaction from activists on both sides of the debate looking to underline the apparent hypocrisy of Catholic Health’s defense.

At press time, Catholic Health did not return messages seeking comment. The Stodghills’ attorneys declined to comment while the case was still being considered for appeal.

The Supreme Court is set to decide whether to take the case in the next few weeks.

by on Aug. 21, 2014 at 1:37 AM
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by Platinum Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 1:51 AM

Colorado Supreme Court Punts on Fetal Rights, Rejects Catholic Health Case

Cross-posted with permission from the Colorado Independent.

See our coverage of Catholic Health Initiatives’ case against fetal personhood here.

Catholic Health Initiatives, an Englewood-based national nonprofit, won’t have to go to court again and it won’t have to pay damages in the lawsuit tied to the 2006 emergency-room deaths of Lori Stodghill and her unborn twins. The state high court justices issued their decision April 22 without comment.

“They won, and they won with an argument the Church said publicly—and they agreed publicly—was immoral,” said Beth Krulewitch, attorney for Lori’s husband, Jeremy, and their daughter Elizabeth.

Lori Stodghill was seven-months pregnant when she died of a heart attack in the emergency room at Cañon City’s St. Thomas More Hospital, which is run by Catholic Health. Lori’s doctor, Pelham Staples, was on call that day but never came to the hospital. At one point, he phoned Jeremy Stodghill to ask if he wanted the doctors to try and save the twins by removing them from Lori’s womb. Jeremy, pacing the hallway just beyond the operating room door, said he didn’t know what to do.

In the lawsuit that followed, attorneys for Staples, St. Thomas More, and Catholic Health argued they couldn’t be held liable for the deaths of the fetuses because, under the state’s Wrongful Death Statute, fetuses are not people with legal rights.

After news outlets—led by the Colorado Independentreported on the legal strategy this past January, stunned commentators and Catholics around the country called the legal argument a hypocrisy. They lamented the way it turned Church teaching on the sanctity of life upside down. They feared that decades of work promoting Church views in the public sphere had been undercut by a short-sighted business decision.

Krulewitch says it’s more than that. She repeats a point she has tried for years to make to the courts and more recently to the media—a point she says kept getting lost in coverage of the story. She says Colorado medical malpractice law governed by the Wrongful Death Statute cited in the case is unsettled. She says it has not been established that Colorado law grants no legal rights to fetuses. That’s part of why she believes the case really matters.

In February, she wrote an email to that effect addressed to the Huffington Post, which had hosted a roundtable on the case.

“Catholic Health Initiatives advanced an argument that is an open question under Colorado law,” she wrote. “No Colorado appellate decision has addressed the issue and the lower courts that have [weighed] the [matter] have issued conflicting opinions. The vast majority of states that have decided the issue on similar and sometimes identical statutes have overwhelmingly found that a viable fetus is a person for purposes of wrongful death liability. So anyone that suggests that Catholic Health Initiatives was simply following the law is wrong. Catholic Health advanced this argument to make new law, not to follow established law.”

Krulewitch had offered an earlier explanation to Denver weekly Westword, saying that leaving viable fetuses out of the Wrongful Death Statute opens up a loophole that undercuts the spirit of the law.

“What we’re saying is if you have a viable fetus—and there’s no question in this case that these babies were viable—and a doctor negligently causes their death, that the surviving parents ought to be able to bring a lawsuit,” she said. Otherwise, “the person who was negligent would basically get away with it.”

In 2010, Fremont County District Court Judge David Thorson ruled in favor of Catholic Health, even while acknowledging the question on fetal rights remained open for other courts or the state legislature to answer. In 2012, a panel of three appellate judges effectively punted on the issue after attorneys for the defense argued the question in the case was really whether a c-section would have likely saved the twins. The Supreme Court has elected to leave the question on fetal rights and the Colorado Wrongful Death Statute on the table.

Colorado Church authorities, led by Archbishop Samuel Aquila, denounced the legal strategy used by Catholic Health and suggested they would work to make sure that in the future the statute covers fetuses.

“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. No Catholic institution may legitimately work to undermine fundamental human dignity,” the Colorado bishops wrote in aJanuary 24 release.

“Catholic Health Initiatives officials have assured us that they believed it was ‘morally wrong’ to make recourse to an unjust law … CHI joins us in our commitment to work for comprehensive change in Colorado’s law, so that the unborn may enjoy the same legal protections as all other persons.”

Catholic Health representatives said the organization joined with the bishops in “expressing solidarity for the Stodghill family” and offering to “stand with” them and “support them in their suffering.”

Catholic Health Initiatives runs 78 hospitals in 17 states. It reports nearly $11 billion in annual revenues.

In a January interview with The Independent, Jeremy Stodghill said that if the Supreme Court rejected the case, it would at least feel like closure.

“Then that would be it. It would be over,” he said.

Looking back at the case, Stodghill said he wished everyone involved had just been honest. He declined to say what he thought of the Catholic Health legal strategy because he thought that, if he did say, it would come out too profane to print. He said he wasn’t angry, at least not in any obvious way. He wasn’t raging around the house, throwing chairs or anything like that. He said he understood that money matters in the health industry, like it matters in every other industry.

“They gotta keep the lights on,” he said. “None of what they do is free.”

by Silver Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 4:14 PM
OMG! I'm not surprised.
by Socialist Hippie on Aug. 21, 2014 at 4:48 PM

SMH- just another black mark.

by Silver Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 5:09 PM
They wouldn't be hypocritical for the sake of money I'm sure
by Bronze Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 5:13 PM
Not suprised what so fucking ever.
by Socialist Hippie on Aug. 21, 2014 at 5:47 PM

Quoting AdrianneHill: They wouldn't be hypocritical for the sake of money I'm sure

You do not amass that kind of wealth by playing by the rules. Rules are for suckers and plebs.

by Silver Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 8:03 PM
I'm shocked
by Bronze Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 9:53 PM



no way!

by Silver Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 10:16 PM

So ~ all of you are angry because the law was upheld ... the SAME law that you are willing to call people names over, ridicule them, stand up and shout my body my choice over ... but now all of a sudden you're all worried about two little fetuses. Smh.

No ~ I do NOT agree with what the hospital did ... but I've never claimed to be on any side BUT that of the unborn.

I think that none of you gives a flying rat's patootie about any fetus ~ you're all just willing to use these two to bash a church that you already have made clear you detest. That is just as pathetic as what the hospital and it's lawyers did.

by Gold Member on Aug. 21, 2014 at 10:20 PM
I've had treatment at that hospital. I wasn't very impressed- they seemed to be very understaffed.

And I used to work for CHI. None of this surprises me.
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