Texas Supreme Court avoids redefining "person" in ruling
■ A Texas Medical Assn. attorney says a wrongful death law was written to avoid opening the door to more lawsuits.
By Andis Robeznieks — Posted Sept. 20, 2004
Using a strict interpretation of state law and case law, the Texas Supreme Court decided to keep itself out of philosophical and theological arguments over the state law defining a "person."
Abortion opponents were hoping the court would use a case against a Fort Worth hospital as an opportunity to change the state's definition. Instead, the court overruled a state appellate court and said the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause did not extend to fetuses, so parents did not have standing to file a wrongful death claim on behalf of a stillborn fetus.
The ruling centers around the state's wrongful death law, which was passed in 1860 but did not address the death of a fetus. It was amended in 2003 to grant parents of stillborn "individuals" the right to sue -- except in deaths related to lawful medical procedures performed by licensed health care professionals. The justices ruled 7-1 that the parents didn't have standing regardless of when the law was amended.
Texas Medical Assn. General Counsel Rocky Wilcox said justices did the right thing by avoiding the larger issues others had linked to the case. "What the Supreme Court decision really does is say that there is no cause of action in this particular circumstance," he said.
Tara Reese was seven months pregnant when she entered the Fort Worth Osteopathic Medical Center emergency department May 12, 1998, court documents said. Doctors reportedly had difficulty monitoring fetal heartbeat; the next morning they told Reese that the fetus would be stillborn. Reese and her husband sued, arguing that an emergency cesarean section would have saved the fetus.
Wilcox said the 2003 amendment was made to punish someone such as a drunken driver who kills a fetus while harming a pregnant woman.
"The legislators said, 'We're not talking about suing doctors or hospitals,' " Wilcox said. "A large number of pregnancies don't result in a live birth, and the fear was, if you open that door, you'll have a lot more lawsuits, and we already have a medical liability crisis."