DECEMBER 22, 2003 VOLUME 11, NUMBER 25
Many of our clients have a visceral reaction to the idea that they might be “kept alive by machines” after they are no longer able to make health care decisions for themselves. That is why they sign “advance directives” like health care powers of attorney and living wills. The whole point of such documents is to convey the patient’s wishes about the type of treatment to be provided—or withheld.
Doris Lee had signed an advance directive before she was admitted to Riverview Care Center. The Louisiana woman had been very specific about what care she wanted. Her advance directive said, in part: “Do not use a respirator. Do not use dialysis. Do not use feeding tube. Do not use CPR.”
Late one night, aides at Riverview found Ms. Lee unresponsive and decided they needed help to revive her. They called 911, and emergency medical technicians responded. They did exactly what they are trained to do—they began CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), administered chest compressions, placed a breathing tube and even a tube to deliver fluids. When Ms. Lee’s daughter arrived and demanded that the treatment be stopped, Ms. Lee was allowed to die without further intervention.
Ms. Lee’s daughters sued the nursing home for violating the instructions contained in Ms. Lee’s advance directives. The nursing home sought dismissal of the lawsuit, arguing that the question first had to be submitted to a medical review panel by state law.
The Louisiana Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered that the case proceed to trial. Ms. Lee’s daughters were not claiming medical malpractice, ruled the Court, but breach of contract and a violation of the Nursing Home Residents Bill of Rights. Terry v. Red River Center Corporation, December 10, 2003.
The significance of Ms. Lee’s case is subtle, but important. If her daughters’ claim was really a malpractice action, it would be judged by comparing the nursing home’s behavior to the prevailing standard of care among similar facilities. It would also be subject to special state procedural rules (similar to those adopted in Arizona) designed to make it harder for patients to successfully sue for malpractice.
If, however, the claim is based on contract principles or the rights contained in the Nursing Home Residents Bill of Rights, the questions become much simpler. Did the facility have a duty to follow Ms. Lee’s instructions? Did they know what those instructions were? And, finally, did they fail to honor her advance directives? Those are the questions to be posed at trial.