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Catholic Hospital: We Didn’t Know About Legal Argument

Remember the Catholic hospital in Colorado that filed a brief in a malpractice lawsuit arguing that they can’t be held responsible for the death of a pregnant woman’s fetus because fetuses aren’t legally people? They’ve now admitted that was “morally wrong,” but say they didn’t know about the argument.

Miguel De La Torre, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, noted that the church often argues for laws recognizing a fetus as a human being.

“If that legislation was to come up again, how could the Catholic Church argue we should protect the rights of a fetus?” he said.

Indeed, last week Colorado’s bishops met with executives at Catholic Healthcare Initiatives, a branch of the church that operates the hospital at the center of the case, to review how the lawsuit was handled. The two released separate statements Monday saying CHI executives had been unaware of the legal arguments and pledging to “work for comprehensive change in Colorado’s law, so that the unborn may enjoy the same legal protections as other persons.”

But here’s the thing: They won on that argument.

Jeremy Stodghill sued the hospital, some doctors and Catholic Healthcare Initiatives, which owns the company that operates Thomas More. Attorneys for CHI in 2010 filed court papers asking a judge to dismiss the case because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove negligent care killed Lori Stodghill and her fetuses. They also argued that “under Colorado law, a fetus is not a `person,’ and Plaintiff’s claims for wrongful death must therefore be dismissed.”

The trial judge agreed, finding that previous state cases required a fetus to be “born alive” to have a legal claim. An appellate court upheld the dismissal on other grounds. Stodghill’s attorneys are now asking the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

They now say they’ll stop using the argument, but what exactly does that mean? If the state supreme court takes the case, will the hospital concede the argument and agree to whatever damages? Will they ask that the case be remanded back to the first court to be considered without the conclusion they reached? I don’t know that they can do that. Colorado law is pretty clear on this. Even if the hospital disavows the argument, the law doesn’t change. Their argument was legally correct even if it was hypocritical.

And did they really not know about it? Initially, perhaps. Lawyers make the best argument they can for their clients and this argument was both correct and effective. And clients don’t always read legal briefs. But by the time two courts had ruled on the matter and agreed with that argument, the hospital damn sure knew about it and did nothing to withdraw it or prevent it from being used on appeal.

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    I’m inclined to take them at face value here. The problem is not so much the hypocrisy per se, it’s that their position on fetal personhood has inherent problems that will inevitably lead to hypocrisy and contradiction.

    In other words, I am saying that, taking as a given the Catholic church’s stated position on whether a fetus counts as a full person with full human rights, I don’t really think the hospital can do much better than this. It’s the position itself that is morally bankrupt, not what they are doing with it.

    There is no ethical way to be morally repugnant.

  2. drr1 says

    Sorry, I’m not buying it. When an organization as sophisticated as CHI employs outside counsel, there’s someone on the inside – attorney, paralegal, risk manager – monitoring and supervising outside counsel’s work. The people on the inside get copies of pleadings, motions, memoranda in support, and the like. Someone on the inside – someone with authority to put a stop to it, or, at the very least, run it up the chain of command to someone who could put a stop to it – knew about this. That person(s) let it go, thinking that it would slip quietly into the court files without notice.

    Oops!

  3. psweet says

    There is something that they could do — they could choose, on their own, to compensate the person that they forced into bankruptcy. If the argument is morally wrong, I don’t see how they could consider the judgment correct.

  4. naturalcynic says

    What is really shocking about this case is that there was a “Personhood Amendment” on the Colorado ballot in both 2008 and 2010. Both lost with votes in the 70-30 range, but still, how could the lawyers not know and consider this in their arguments?

  5. says

    there’s someone on the inside – attorney, paralegal, risk manager – monitoring and supervising outside counsel’s work

    Yeah, but any such employee is probably no more interested in the theology than the outside counsel. After all, their jobs probably depend on keeping claim costs low.

    Ed’s right. It is unlikely that the courts would have ignored the law on ‘personhood’ even if the hospital hadn’t argued it directly.

    The best thing might be to start a campaign along the lines of ‘The Pope says my fetuses were full human beings. Why won’t the Catholic Church pay for killing them?’

  6. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    I’m inclined to think that they could argue that as long as the law says that the fetus isn’t a person, they have a right to use that defense. It’s not hypocritical (to a lawyer) to use any defense the law allows, even though the defendant might not agree with it.

    The catch here is that the church claims to be a moral arbiter and example. The issue here is that if they are at fault for the deaths of the woman and the fetuses, they shouldn’t even be arguing. They should pay up! What this really shows (no surprise) is that they’re more interested in money than doing what’s right. So much for their moral superiority.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    If only the poor hospital could have arranged to have someone inherently incapable of error to supervise things…

  8. baal says

    ” And clients don’t always read legal briefs. ”

    Eh, this is a true statement but I have to think that the legal theory would have been floated past someone on the Bishop side for sign-off. If it wasn’t, I’d question the ‘winning’ attorneys why not.

  9. says

    Why, I’m shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you!

    The RCC would never condone legal chicanery so that they might avoid having to pay the price of malfeasance or outright criminal conduct. Hey, you don’t gotta bleeve me, just ask Cardinal Law.

  10. Crudely Wrott says

    His Popeness Ratzinger must have gotten wind of this. He’s announced today that he’s walking off the job. Claims weariness.

    If I were in his Pradas I’d be weary too.

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