Judge Tosses Suit Over End-of-Life Care Law

A Harris County district judge rejected a constitutional challenge to part of the Texas Advance Directives Act, siding with TMA and several other organizations that filed a brief in support of the law.

Judge Bill Burke on Sept. 12 threw out the lawsuit filed by Evelyn Kelly of Pasadena against Houston Methodist Hospital. Ms. Kelly had sued Methodist over the care her late son, Chris Dunn, received under the Advance Directives Act.

If a physician believes life-sustaining treatment would exacerbate or extend a patient's suffering, the law allows that physician to present the case to an ethics committee to evaluate the appropriateness of continuing that treatment. If the ethics committee affirms the attending physician's decision that the treatment would be medically inappropriate, the law provides a qualified immunity from liability for causing the treatment to be withheld or withdrawn. The attending physician has to make a reasonable effort to transfer the patient to another physician. 

Ms. Kelly's suit claimed part of the law gives doctors and hospitals "absolute authority" to stop life-sustaining care and violates a patient's right to due process. 

According to the Houston Chronicle, Judge Burke said repealing the 1999 law would be "a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water." He said any needed fix to the statute would be a task for the legislature, echoing an argument that TMA, the Texas Alliance for Patient Access (TAPA), the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, and other organizations had made in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in late July. Unsuccessful attempts to gut this law have been introduced in every legislative session since 2005.

"It would be a big mistake to throw out a statute in place for nearly 20 years that seems to be working pretty well," Judge Burke said, according to the Chronicle. "If you think the law doesn't provide sufficient protection for patients, go to the legislature to remedy it."

About a month after Mr. Dunn was admitted to the hospital in 2015, his attending physicians and patient care team decided life-sustaining treatment was medically inappropriate, and the hospital's ethics committee agreed. But attorneys for Mr. Dunn began a court battle to continue the life-sustaining treatment. Methodist continued that treatment until Mr. Dunn died on Dec. 23, 2015. Ms. Kelly filed suit claiming that Methodist "prematurely applied the procedures" in the law and that her son's constitutional rights were violated.

TMA and the other organizations, which included some pro-life groups, had argued in their brief that the law section at issue was constitutional and is "designed to resolve otherwise-intractable end-of-life disputes. In almost every case — including this one — it does so without violating patient wishes. If reform is necessary, it should take place in a legislative venue."

TAPA General Counsel Brian Jackson said in a statement that with Mr. Dunn's unfortunate passing, "there is no case or controversy. We were not surprised that the judge dismissed the case." He said the law "implements a public policy that was thoroughly vetted and unanimously adopted by the right-to-life community, health care providers, and the Texas legislature."

Ms. Kelly told the Chronicle that she was planning to appeal the ruling, but her attorney had told the paper earlier that no appeal decision had been made.

Action, Oct. 2, 2017

Last Updated On

October 02, 2017

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