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When life-saving measures can mean a lawsuit

Missouri law gives people the right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment under certain circumstances. However, at times, medical providers fail to abide by the written documents, and disregard the patient's will.

The New York Times' recent article depicts a troubling event that occurred where a patient's end-of-life wishes, properly documented and expressed by her health care proxy husband, were disregarded. In that case, the patient was revived under circumstances where directives were in place, instructing that there was not to be life-saving efforts should her heart or lungs stop working. However, when she went into cardiac arrest, hospital staff nonetheless provided life-reviving treatment to her body. Her husband has sued the hospital for doing so, contending that the unpermitted treatment amounted to assault and other actionable wrongs.

Missouri has laws on the books allowing competent adults to sign a Declaration as to their wishes, should they become terminally ill. They may also execute a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. In this document, the person designates another adult to make medical decisions on behalf of him or her in the event he or she later becomes unable to do so.

Missouri case law recognizes that a person has a right to decide his or her medical care, including refusing food and hydration. However, the state also has a right to require clear and convincing proof that the person would have wished for the withholding of food or hydration while competent to decide. Both a properly provided Declaration and the Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care can help ensure that the state has what it needs to make such a finding of intent by a patient.

When a person has his or her properly prepared documents available, a medical provider is obligated to respect those wishes. When the medical provider neglects to do so, the chances of a lawsuit alleging assault and other claims grow substantially.

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