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Man at center of right-to-die case dies in Lodi hospital

DAVID KRAVETS, Associated Press Writer
  Wednesday, July 18, 2001

(07-18) 00:29 PDT SAN FRANCISCO (AP) --

The man at the center of a right-to-die case before the California Supreme Court died of complications from pneumonia, prompting questions on whether the justices will rule on the precedent-setting case.

Robert Wendland died Tuesday at Lodi Memorial Hospital after a bout with pneumonia, doctors said. Wendland, who was 49, had been paralyzed and virtually unable to communicate since a 1993 traffic accident. He suffered severe brain damage and was kept alive by a feeding tube that his wife wanted to remove so he could die.

The high court was expected to rule by next month on the issue of when conservators could remove life support from incapacitated patients. But the death now means the court is not required to rule because the case has been mooted by Wendland's passing.

Wendland's plight has reignited national debate over when loved ones can make such directives to pull the plug when no will or other written document verifies those wishes. An estimated 15 percent of U.S. adults have drafted such wills or designated such powers to others.

During oral arguments in the case in May, Wendland's future took center stage before the California justices, three decades after a New Jersey court said the family of Karen Ann Quinlan had the right to withdraw medical treatment to their comatose daughter, who was classified in a permanent vegetative state.

It was not the first right-to-die case before California's justices. In 1993, the high court said mentally competent adults may refuse lifesaving medical treatment. That case came three years after the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Missouri case, said there was a constitutional right to withdraw life-sustaining medical treatment, but left it up to the states to devise the legal framework.

At issue in the Wendland case is whether statements Wendland made to his wife Rose before his near-fatal traffic accident in Lodi -- such as saying he did not want to live like a vegetable -- are enough proof to allow doctors to remove the tubes that kept the 49-year-old former auto parts dealer alive.

An appeals court said those statements, and doctors at a Lodi hospital agreeing with the decision, are all that is necessary to end the life of the father of three.

But Robert's mother, Florence Wendland, claimed her son is not a vegetable and therefore should not have the tubes removed, because those were not his wishes. Doctors say Robert has some ability to think and to sometimes move in his hospital bed, but has no ability to communicate whether he wants to live or die.

It was a twilight state providing him no means to care for himself.

While the justices now are not bound to rule on the case, and before Wendland's death were expected to decide the case by late August, Rose Wendland said in an interview late Tuesday that she wanted the court to rule anyway.

"Yes, I want them to," she said.

Janie Siess, the mother's attorney who urged the court not to allow the wife to pull the plug, said she also wanted the court to rule on the case.

"It's a life or death question that they must decide," she said.

The case is Conservatorship of Robert Wendland, S087265.

2001 Associated Press