AUGUST 13, 2001 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 7
Twice before we have told the unfolding and tragic story of Robert Wendland. Fate and the California Supreme Court have now written the final two chapters in the saga.
You may recall that Robert Wendland was injured when his truck rolled over in 1993. Mr. Wendland had been drinking and despondent—at least part of his emotional state would later be attributed to the then-recent death of his father-in-law from a debilitating disease.
After his accident Mr. Wendland’s wife and brother testified that shortly before the accident he had expressed a wish not to suffer a slow, agonizing death like the one he had seen his father-in-law endure. If that was his wish, it was not to be granted.
Although Mr. Wendland was in a coma for a period of time after his accident, he recovered to the point that he could give some responses to questions posed to him by his caretakers. While his treating physician elicited yes/no responses to some simple questions, he gave no response at all to the most chilling of the inquiries: "Do you want to die?" The physician testified that he wasn’t sure that the other answers were really responsive, though they seemed to be consistent.
Mr. Wendland’s wife asked the California District Court for permission to remove the feeding tubes keeping him alive. His mother and sister objected. In an emotional opinion after hearing days of testimony, the judge declined to give her that power. (See the August 10, 1998, Elder Law Issues)
Mrs. Wendland appealed, and the California Court of Appeals sided with her. (See the March 6, 2000, Elder Law Issues) Mr. Wendland’s mother appealed that decision to the state’s Supreme Court.
Last week’s opinion from the California Supreme Court, though chronologically the final word, was really the penultimate chapter. Mr. Wendland died, feeding tube in place, just before the final court decision was announced. That decision reinstated the judgment of the trial court—in the absence of clear and convincing evidence of Mr. Wendland’s wishes, the Supreme Court held, Mrs. Wendland did not have the authority to direct removal of his feeding tube. Conservatorship of the Person of Wendland, August 9, 2001.
Mr. Wendland’s story has limited applicability for many reasons. It is a California court case only, and other state’s courts might reach a different result. More significantly, Mr. Wendland’s condition was unusual: he was not in a coma, not in a vegetative state, but still not able to communicate effectively.
Mr. Wendland lived eight years in personal limbo while courts tried to decide his fate. His death made the final decision both moot and ironic. Though we may never know Mr. Wendland’s true wishes the lesson from his personal and legal history is clear. Failure to sign a living will or other advance directive can, in the real world, lead to unwanted, expensive and ultimately ineffectual treatment.