AUGUST 20, 2001 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 8
Wilbur Kloepping wanted to stay in his home even though he knew he was dying. The 80-year-old man was confined to a wheelchair most of the time, but his wife Marguerite helped take care of him. Sometimes Mr. Kloepping would fall out of his wheelchair, however, and Mrs. Kloepping was simply not strong enough to get him back into the chair on her own.
On several occasions a neighbor of the Kloeppings, Norma Struempler, helped Mrs. Kloepping get her husband back into his wheelchair. One day in November, 1997, Mrs. Kloepping asked for Ms. Struempler’s help yet again. Mr. Kloepping had fallen forward out of his chair and was unable to stand on his own.
While the two women lifted Mr. Kloepping back into his chair Ms. Struempler suddenly heard a popping sound and realized that she had hurt her back. She returned to her own home sweating and nauseated; when she sought medical help she learned that she had a compressed fracture to her T12 vertebra below the beltline.
According to Ms. Struempler Mr. Kloepping had assured her that he and his wife would pay her for any injury she had received while helping them. Mr. Kloepping died about four weeks later, and Ms. Struempler initiated legal proceedings against his estate and his widow, Mrs. Kloepping.
Ms. Struempler’s lawsuit made a novel claim which, if successful, could have a chilling effect on the elderly who choose to die at home. She argued that Mr. Kloepping placed himself in a position of peril by choosing to stay at home when he knew he needed skilled care, and that he therefore “invited” her to rescue him. Under her theory Mr. and Mrs. Kloepping would automatically be liable for her injury, essentially because Mr. Kloepping should have known he needed to be in a hospital or other institution.
The Nebraska Supreme Court disagreed. In ruling that Mr. Kloepping was not liable for Ms. Struempler’s injuries, the Court pointed out that she had both the opportunity and a duty to exercise care. She could have called the fire department or paramedics, or even declined to help altogether. It was not, according to the Court, foreseeable that Ms. Struempler might be injured while trying to help Mr. Kloepping, and his estate should not have to pay her for that injury. Struempler v. Estate of Kloepping, May 25, 2001.
If Ms. Struempler had been employed as a nursing aide, of course, the result would likely have been very different. Because Ms. Struempler was a neighbor simply trying to help out she did not receive the same legal protection an employee would have been afforded. Mr. Kloepping had no duty to go to a nursing home to prevent injuries like the one Ms. Struempler suffered.