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Guardianship of Schiavo

    Brief Fact Summary. Michael Schiavo (Guardian) (Petitioner) (Plaintiff), husband and guardian of Theresa Schiavo (Theresa), petitioned the court for authorization to discontinue Theresa’s artificial life support, and Theresa’s parents (Parents) (Defendant) challenged the court’s decision.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The clear and convincing standard of proof allows a decision to end life support despite inconsistent or conflicting evidence.

    Facts. Theresa married Michael Schiavo (Plaintiff) in 1984.  She suffered a cardiac arrest in 1990 and although she was rushed to the hospital, she suffered brain injury and never regained consciousness.  Current CAT scans reveal that the majority of Theresa’s cerebral cortex is now gone and has been replaced with cerebral spinal fluid.  She is in an incurable persistent vegetative state.  She is totally dependent upon others to perform all of her activities of daily living, including the use of tubes to feed her.  She shows no signs of awareness.  With good nursing care, she could continue to survive in this state.  Michael (Plaintiff) received enough funds from an underlying medical malpractice action to pay for the continued care.  After ten years without improvement, but facing only continual deterioration, Michael, as Guardian (Plaintiff), petitioned the court for an order to end artificial life support.  The trial court granted the order and Parents (Defendant) now appeal.

    Issue. Does the clear and convincing standard of proof allow a decision to end life support despite inconsistent or conflicting evidence?

    Held. (Altenbernd, J.)  Yes.  The clear and convincing standard of proof allows a decision to end life support despite inconsistent or conflicting evidence.  In a case like this, the default is to err on the side of life.  To begin with, there is no merit to the Parents’ (Defendant) argument that Guardian (Plaintiff) has a conflict of interest regarding inheriting the remaining settlement funds.  In this case, instead of deciding the issue himself, chose to present the evidence to the court, and, after hearing contrary evidence from Defendant, the trial court became the surrogate decision maker when granting the order to terminate life support.  There is no conflict of interest between the decision maker and Theresa’s wishes.  In addition, the fact that there are sufficient funds available from the settlement of the medical malpractice suit to continue to provide future care does not change the amount of evidence presented regarding Theresa’s wishes to not receive that care.  Secondly, Defendants challenge the social science evidence presented by Beverly Tyler, the executive director of Georgia Health Decisions, as being prejudicial.  The evidence this expert witness presented regarded studies on American values, and opinions and attitudes about the decision to end life support.  After thoroughly reviewing the record, we find no evidence that the trial judge gave any extra weight to this evidence that would have prejudiced his decision.  The testimony in this case established that Theresa was very young when the tragedy occurred, did not have children, and had not thought of drafting a will.  However, statements Theresa made to her friends and family, along with other evidence, was sufficient to prove that Theresa would not have wanted to receive life support under the circumstances of her present medical condition.  The decision of the trial court is affirmed.

    Discussion. While the appellate court found sufficient evidence to affirm the trial court’s decision in this case, the court emphasizes the default rule that if enough conflicting evidence exists, the clear and convincing evidence standard will not be met.  This threshold is much lower in cases that do not involve life support.  National attention was brought to the case when Governor Jeb Bush intervened with a freshly passed statute, “Terri’s Law,” granting him authority to overrule the courts and order the feeding tube replaced.  Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the law as being a violation of the Separation of Powers Doctrine, but stayed the removal of Theresa’s feeding tube pending a ruling by the United States Supreme Court on whether or not they would hear the case based upon a Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection claim.  The high court declined.  Once the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari, multiple court challenges quickly followed in Florida’s state courts contesting Michael’s guardianship and alleging violations of Theresa’s rights to due process and religious freedom.  All of these challenges were denied, and Theresa’s feeding tube was removed by court order on March 18, 2005.  On March 20, 2005, in an unprecedented action, Congress tried to intervene by passing a law that extended jurisdiction of the state court’s guardianship determination to the federal courts.  The federal district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied the requested injunctive relief for an order to reinsert the feeding tube.  The United States Supreme Court again denied certiorari.  Theresa died on March 31, 2005.


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