Friday, August 27, 2004
Wrongful death claims and the stillborn fetus.
In Fort Worth Osteopathic Hosp., Inc. v. Reese, No. 02-1061, the court held that its ruling in Witty v. Am. Gen. Capital Distrib., Inc., 727 S.W.2d 503 (Tex. 1987) (holding that the statutory wrongful death cause of action does not allow recovery for a stillborn fetus) does not violate the Texas Constitution.
Interestingly, the majority refuses to overrule Witty, primarily because the Legislature codified most of the Witty rule last year. The 78th Legislature amended the definition of "individual" in the wrongful death statute (Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 71.001(4)) to include “an unborn child at every stage of gestation from fertilization until birth,” but as the court notes in Reese, "the statute expressly does not apply to claims 'for the death of an individual who is an unborn child that is brought against . . . a physician or other health care provider licensed in this state, if the death directly or indirectly is caused by, associated with, arises out of, or relates to a lawful medical or health care practice or procedure of the physician or health care provider,'” id. § 71.003(c)(4).
Thus, the court sticks to the Witty rule, which leaves the court with the question whether the exclusion of stillborn fetuses violates the Texas Constitution's equal protection provision (Art. I, § 3). The court concludes that it does not, principally on the ground that, because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a fetus is not a "person" for purposes of the 14th Amendment, neither does it enjoy legal protections under the Texas Constitution. The opinion is notable for the utter lack of reasoning in support of its conclusion, other than noting that the law has ever been so. Other states (Maryland, Florida, California) and the Third Circuit agree.
The majority opinion is here. Justice O'Neill's concurring opinion reluctantly agrees with the majority that 17 years of legislative silence (plus 2003's amendments to the wrongful death law) amounts to acquiescence in the Witty rule. Justice Smith's dissenting opinion disagrees with every jot and tittle of the majority's ruling - both the statutory analysis and the equal protection ruling.