New Jersey Court Recognizes ‘Wrongful Prolongation of Life’ Cause of Action

New Jersey’s Advance Directive for Health Care Act (the “Act”) guarantees the right of an individual to make decisions regarding his or her healthcare.  But what happens if those decisions and wishes are ignored?  Morris County Superior Court Judge W. Hunt Dumont recently recognized a cause of action for wrongful prolongation of life against a Defendant hospital, doctor, and several nurses, for their alleged failure to follow a patient’s healthcare wishes.

Suzanna Stica was admitted to the hospital after complaining of breathing problems. She had signed “do not resuscitate” and “do not intubate” orders ahead of her admission.  Despite those orders, the Defendants resuscitated Ms. Stica after she went into cardiac arrest. She lived an additional six months before she ultimately passed away.  During that time, Ms. Stica was intubated, had difficulty breathing, was confined to a wheelchair, suffered from depression and dementia, and had trouble speaking.

The court explained Ms. Stica’s wishes were “simply ignored” by the hospital and its staff.  “Ms. Stica lived an additional six months in a diminished condition that included unwanted pain and suffering,” and the Defendants “violated Ms. Stica’s fundamental right to refuse unwanted medical treatment.”

The court held that its ruling was a logical extension of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1979 ruling in Berman v. Allan, which recognized the doctrine of wrongful birth.  New Jersey, the court explained, has taken a leadership role in recognizing patients’ rights regarding treatment options.  These rights include “a well-established right to reject lifesaving treatment.”

By denying the Defendants’ motion for summary judgment, the court extended a legal cause of action against those who ignore a person’s decisions regarding his or her healthcare.  To ensure that your healthcare decisions and end-of-life wishes are properly integrated into your estate planning instruments, or if you have any questions regarding this recent ruling, we encourage you to contact the Firm.