CaseCast™ – "What you need to know"
Brief Fact Summary. Two physicians were charged with murder and conspiracy charges after discontinuing treatment of a comatose patient at the request of the deceased’s family, where there was virtually no chance of recovery.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A physician’s failure to continue treatment of a comatose patient at the request of the patient’s family is not an unlawful failure to perform a legal duty and therefore is not punishable under the penal code.
The lack of generalized public awareness of the statutory scheme and the typically human characteristics of procrastination and reluctance to contemplate the need for such arrangements however makes this a tool which will all too often go unused by those who might desire it.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Is a physician under a duty to continue treatment of a comatose patient once such treatment has proven to be ineffective such that he/she can be held liable for murder?
Held. No. Judgment reversed.
Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, to be distinguished from those killings which society has deemed justifiable. This court deems the cessation of life support as an omission of further treatment as opposed to an affirmative act and there is no criminal liability for an omission where no legal duty is owed.
A physician’s omission to continue treatment where such treatment has proven ineffective, regardless of the physician’s knowledge that the patient would die, is not a failure to perform a legal duty and therefore the physician cannot be held liable for murder.
Discussion. Note that the Supreme Court of the United States has endorsed the distinction between the situation where a physician lets a patient die as a result of discontinuing treatment and the situation where the physician administers a lethal injection. The first, as in this case, is evaluated as an omission to act whereas the later is deemed an affirmative act and amounts to murder.