Court may still decide near-coma patient case
Ruling sought even after man's death

Harriet Chiang, Chronicle Legal Affairs Writer
  Thursday, July 19, 2001

 

San Francisco Chronicle


A day after Robert Wendland's death, his widow and his mother, who have been battling for years over whether he should live or die, agreed yesterday that the California Supreme Court should still rule on this closely watched case.

Regardless of their wishes, the court can either dismiss the right-to-die case or render a decision.

Wendland, 49, died Tuesday from pneumonia, eight years after a car accident left him severely brain-damaged and paralyzed on his right side. The former salesman was conscious, but unable to speak, walk or control his bodily functions, a state that some doctors describe as "minimally conscious."

His wife and three children asked that his feeding tube be removed, but his mother and sister insisted that he would have wanted to be kept alive. The bitter family battle drew national attention because Wendland was neither in a coma nor competent to make his own decision, lingering in a twilight state.

His widow, Rose Wendland, 44, said at a press conference in Stockton yesterday that she still wanted a ruling in the case. "I hope the court makes the right decision -- not for us, it's too late for us," she said. "I would hope that families wouldn't have to go through what we went through.

"This should be a very private and sad time for us," she said, her voice choking with emotion. "We should have grief without having to deal with the public."

Both her lawyer and the attorney for Robert Wendland filed papers with the court yesterday urging the justices to decide the case.

Wendland's mother, Florence Wendland, would also like to see the court issue a ruling, said her attorney. "It is a case that has always been about more than just Robert," said Janie Hickok Siess. "It is a case of overriding public significance and public concern."

The court will have to decide how a family is to demonstrate what a patient might want under these circumstances.

The death of a central figure in a case is not an unusual situation for the court.

Earlier this year, the court decided a case involving death row inmate Thomas Thompson, who had asked that his own spiritual adviser be with him until he was moved to the death chamber. Even though Thompson was executed in 1998, the court decided to rule on the issue because it might arise in future executions.

"What guides the court is whether there is a question of substantial interest," Chief Justice Ronald George said yesterday.

The court must take some action in the Wendland case by Aug. 28, the deadline for issuing a decision.

Jon Eisenberg, an Oakland attorney who filed a friend-of-the court brief on behalf of 43 bioethicists, said that Wendland's death might take some of the pressure off of the court.

"The justices might breathe easier deciding the legal issue in this case, knowing they can provide guidance for future cases without having to decide Robert's fate," he said.

 

E-mail Harriet Chiang at hchiang@sfchronicle.com.