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State's high court to hear Wendland case

By Linda Hughes-Kirchubel Record Staff Writer

The California Supreme Court will hear oral arguments May 30 in the case involving a near-comatose Stockton man whose wife is seeking to remove him from life-support.

Robert Wendland, 49, sustained substantial brain damage when he crashed while driving his car drunk near Lodi in September 1993. Although he is no longer comatose, his wife, Rose Wendland, has petitioned San Joaquin County Superior Court to have his feeding and hydration tube removed, in accordance, she says, with her husband's own wishes.

But Rose Wendland's mother-in-law, Florence, has fought for more than four years to keep her son alive.

Rose Wendland has said her husband, cared for at Lodi Memorial Hospital West, is no more than a shell of his former self, and in court documents he has been called "minimally conscious."

Florence Wendland's attorney, Janie Hickok Siess, counters that there's no such medical term, insisting that Robert Wendland can draw and kiss his mother's hand and sometimes bowl from his wheelchair in the hospital's multipurpose room.

Previously published reports have characterized his bowling as consisting of pushing a lightweight ball on a ramp.

"That 'minimally conscious' person bowled a 168 last week," Siess said.

"I can't speak for Rose, but I can tell you the people backing her side want to move the line over to where you can dispose of disabled people. He is conscious, just disabled."

A 1997 trial ended in a summary judgment by Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt that neither Rose Wendland nor her husband's attorney had presented "clear and convincing evidence" that they were following his wishes in removing the tube. But McNatt refused to remove Rose Wendland as conservator for her husband, creating a stalemate between her and Robert Wendland's mother, who visits her son three days a week. Rose Wendland hasn't visited him since 1996, Siess said.

Last year, the state's Third District Court of Appeal ruled that McNatt erred when he made his ruling. According to the appellate court, under probate law, McNatt should have considered only whether Rose Wendland had considered her husband's best interests and met other statutory requirements of the Probate Code.

But the appellate court also handed Florence Wendland a partial victory, ruling the U.S. Constitution, which takes precedence over California code, does require the higher standard of "clear and convincing evidence" in such cases -- not just that the conservator act in good faith and based on medical advice.

Siess wants the state Supreme Court to clarify the particular section of the Probate Code that governs how conservators make decisions for those whose lives they control.

The Supreme Court has a variety of options.

It can uphold all or portions of the appellate court's ruling, or it could carve out a whole new decision. Each side has 30 minutes to argue its case. Rose Wendland has instructed hospital staff not to discuss her husband's condition, Lodi Memorial spokeswoman Carol Farron said.

Lodi Bureau Chief Jeff Hood contributed to this report. *

To reach reporter Linda Hughes-Kirchubel, phone 546-8297 or