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Bay City News Report
Thursday, July 19, 2001

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(07-19) 14:00 PST -- Both sides in an unresolved right-to-die case have asked the state Supreme Court in San Francisco to go ahead with a ruling, even though the severely disabled Stockton man at the center of the case has died.

Robert Wendland, 49, died of pneumonia in a Lodi hospital on Tuesday. He suffered severe brain damage in a 1993 accident in his pick-up truck and was described as minimally conscious and in a near-vegetative state.

His wife and conservator, Rose Wendland, and their three children wanted doctors to remove a feeding tube, while his mother, Florence Wendland, and a sister wanted him kept alive. A court-appointed lawyer representing Robert Wendland supported his wife's position.

The state high court heard arguments on the case on May 30 and has until Aug. 28 either to issue a ruling or to dismiss the case as moot because of Wendland's death.

If the court proceeds with the case, its ruling could break new legal ground in the area of right-to-die disputes.

Courts have previously allowed removal of life support in cases where a patient is terminally ill or in a coma-like state. But the rules are unclear on how a family should make such decisions when a patient is in a near-vegetative state.

Rose Wendland argued that statements Robert Wendland made before his injury showed he would not have wanted to be kept alive in that state. A California law allows conservators to withhold life support if they act in good faith based on medical advice, abide by the patient's wishes and consider the patient's best interests.

Wendland's mother and sister contend there must be clear and convincing evidence of the patient's wishes, which they say was lacking in this case. They also argue the law is unconstitutional.

The lawyers for Rose, Florence and Robert Wendland all submitted letters to the court yesterday asking it to proceed with its deliberations because of the importance of the issues involved.

Janie Siess, an attorney for the mother, wrote that the dispute has raged "at great expense -- emotionally, physically, psychologically, spiritually and indeed financially -- to all parties" since 1995. She said numerous other California families could find themselves in the same position.