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Sacramento Bee -- July 18, 2001

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

By David Kravets
Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The wife of the man at the center of a closely watched right-to-die case said Wednesday she still wants the California Supreme Court to rule on the case, despite her husband's death.

"Hopefully, nobody has to go through what we had to go through," Rose Wendland told a Stockton news conference.

Wendland was in a legal battle for years to terminate her husband's life after a 1993 traffic accident left him paralyzed and virtually unable to communicate.

Robert Wendland died Tuesday at Lodi Memorial Hospital after a bout with pneumonia, prompting questions on whether the high court would rule on the potentially precedent-setting case.

The 49-year-old man suffered severe brain damage and was kept alive by a feeding tube that his wife wanted to remove so he could die. The man's mother, however, objected, setting off years of still unresolved litigation.

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 made moot by Robert Wendland's passing. The justices asked both sides for input on how to proceed.

Even the man's mother, Florence Wendland, wants the court to rule on the case.

"It's a life or death question that they must decide," said Janie Siess, the mother's lawyer.

Robert 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, Robert 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 Robert Wendland made to his wife before his near-fatal traffic accident in Lodi -- such as saying he did not want to live like a vegetable -- would have been enough proof to allow doctors to remove the tubes that kept the former auto parts dealer alive.

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

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

The case is Conservatorship of Robert Wendland, S087265.