New Jersey hospital seeks authority to discontinue life support for certain patients

In a case that could have far-reaching implications, a New Jersey hospital has asked a three-judge appellate panel to hear its case on whether the hospital has the authority to discontinue life support in certain cases, even when family members object and even if the patient has an advance directive indicating his or her wish for continued life sustaining measures, the New Jersey Star-Ledger reports.

At the heart of the case is Ruben Betancourt, who died at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in May 2009 after being in a vegetative state for nearly a year. Medical staff in January had removed him from dialysis and placed Betancourt under a "Do Not Resuscitate" order. The patient's daughter, Jacqueline Betancourt, took the hospital to court, where a judge ordered Trinitas to continue providing life support. 

Hospital staff, according to attorney Gary Riveles, felt that keeping the patient alive was "inhumane," and argued that doctors should be able to determine when "enough is enough." 

"The patient or patient's surrogate should not have the unfettered right to maintain life when there is no chance left," Riveles said. He later added: "We feel there should be a process to reach a consensus in the decision-making between family, medical staff and hospital." 

Todd Drayton, Jacqueline Betancourt's attorney, said the hospital hadn't adequately consulted with the family.. 

New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled in the mid-1970s that patients and their families should ultimately make the call on whether to cease their loved one's life support.

Law professor Kathleen Boozang says Trinitast doesn't want the appellate judges to overturn this law, "but to carve out an exception."

"I'd say the hospital is looking for a narrow decision that (when) doctors believe the care given is grossly inhumane and medically inappropriate, the hospital has the right to terminate treatment," Boozang, a professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law, told the Star-Ledger.

The case is similar to that of Motl Brody, a 12-year-old boy who died of severe brain cancer in November 2008. Prior to his death, Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where Brody had received care, sued for the right to terminate his life support after the boy was ruled brain dead. Brody's Orthodox Jewish family argued that their religion did not define death as "cessation of brain function alone," and lobbied to keep him alive. Nearly two weeks later, before the postponed case could be heard in a courtroom, Brody died

To learn more:
- read this Star-Ledger article
- read this blog post about the case from 2009