Accident Victim Refuses Blood Transfusion; Dies

Her family was not permitted to sue for damages.

Church Law and Tax 1991-11-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

A federal appeals court ruled that the surviving relatives of an accident victim whose death was caused by her refusal to accept a blood transfusion were not entitled to money damages. A 2-vehicle accident resulted in physical injuries to a passenger in one of the cars. She was taken to a hospital and diagnosed as suffering from various injuries including a severed artery. She informed hospital staff upon arrival that she was a Jehovah’s Witness and would not accept blood transfusions. Responding to her deteriorating condition, doctors requested permission of the woman’s husband to perform a blood transfusion. The husband refused. He also refused to allow doctors to transfuse his wife’s own blood back into her body. The woman died on the operating table from a loss of blood. Doctors testified that she would have lived had she received a blood transfusion. The woman’s husband, and her minor children, sued the driver of the other vehicle. A jury refused to award any damages to the husband and children as a result of the woman’s death, on the ground that she would not have died had she accepted the transfusion. The husband appealed this decision, arguing that his religious rights were violated by the jury’s decision. A federal appeals court disagreed. It concluded that it was not impermissible for the jury to base its decision on the fact that the woman would have lived had she received a transfusion. It did not matter that the woman’s decision was based on her religious beliefs. The court noted that under applicable state law, an accident victim may not recover money damages that he did not take reasonable steps to avoid. It observed that controlling decisions of the Supreme Court have held that “generally applicable rules imposing incidental burdens on particular religions do not violate the free exercise [of religion] clause.” On this basis, the husband’s contention that his religious rights had been violated had to be rejected. Munn v. Algee, 924 F.2d 568 (5th Cir. 1991).

The Right to Refuse Medical Treatment

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