Man at center of right-to-die fight is dead
Controversial case was pending in California Supreme Court

Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Wednesday, July 18, 2001

 


The brain-damaged man at the center of a closely watched right-to-die case pending before the California Supreme Court died yesterday afternoon at a Lodi hospital.

Robert Wendland, a 49-year-old car crash victim, had been battling pneumonia for weeks and passed away at 2:40 p.m. with his mother, Florence Wendland, at his side, a family spokesman said.

"The family is doing fine," said Ron Cranford, a spokesman for Wendland's wife, Rose Wendland. "It's been eight long years, so this is a relief in some ways."

Since 1993, Robert Wendland had been in what doctors called a "minimally conscious state," a condition that left him unable to eat, drink, walk or talk on his own. He was kept alive with the help of a feeding tube.

His persistent state sparked a bitter war within the family in 1995, with Rose Wendland arguing her husband would have wanted to die but his mother,

Florence Wendland, insisting her son would have fought to live.

The case landed before the state Supreme Court in May, with a decision expected by Sept. 1.

The case has garnered national attention because the outcome could expand the legal powers of conservators to allow their charges to die. Until now, courts have allowed the removal of feeding tubes only from those deemed terminally ill or in persistent vegetative states.

What made the Robert Wendland case different was that doctors said he could have lived for decades as long as he survived the periodic infections that afflict people in his condition.

What Wendland's death means for the case was unclear yesterday. Yesterday, the court asked attorneys for both sides to present documents outlining how they think it should proceed.

"The court has discretion whether to go ahead and issue an opinion or dismiss the case," said Lawrence Nelson, an attorney for Rose Wendland. "We are still discussing what we want to say to the court."

Janie Hancock Seiss, an attorney for Florence Wendland, said the court "absolutely should rule."

"It is a case that has always been about more than just Robert Wendland," Seiss said. "It is a case of overriding public significance and public concern.

The court would do a grave disservice to Mr. Wendland's family and to the people of California if they just let this go."

Justices have until the end of August to decide how to proceed.

During oral arguments, the court appeared reluctant to allow Rose Wendland to remove the tubes keeping her husband alive. Although the outcome for Wendland is now moot, the justices are expected to tread carefully because of its significance to others in similar positions.

Robert Wendland had been suffering from pneumonia for the past four or five weeks, and his health had been deteriorating in recent days.

Rose Wendland, 44, called her husband's death "peaceful, dignified, and unmarred by pain or suffering."

"Today his right to live free of tubes and medicines that could not really make him better has finally been made real," she said in a statement. "But it had taken way too long for this to happen."

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report. / E-mail Chuck Squatriglia at csquatriglia@sfchronicle.com.