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Liability For Treatment Over Patient’s Objections

A physician treating a patient without considering his/her objections to lifesaving medical treatment is subject to criminal and civil liability for assault and battery.  The court in Cruzan v. Dir., Mo. Dep’t of Health, 497 U.S. 261, 269 (U.S. 1990) reiterated the doctrine that every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body and a surgeon who performs an operation without his patient’s consent commits an assault for which he is liable in damages.

In Shorter v. Drury, 103 Wn.2d 645 (Wash. 1985), the court stated that for a person to expressly assume the risk of another’s conduct, that person must have knowledge of the risk, appreciate and understand its nature, and voluntarily choose to incur it.  Even though a patient and spouse assume the risk of the patient’s death in signing a refusal to allow a blood transfusion, they do not assume the risk of negligence by the doctor in performing the operation.  Therefore, the signing of the refusal shall not be a total bar to an action in wrongful death for medical malpractice.

In Powell v. Columbian Presbyterian Medical Center, 49 Misc. 2d 215 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1965), it was found that the court authorized blood transfusions for a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses who was in a critical state and had refused pleas of her husband and family and hospital staff that she sign authorization for blood transfusions.

Even though it may appear that a court which orders lifesaving medical treatment despite the patient’s objections and a court-appointed guardian or conservator may be immune from suit under the Federal Civil Rights Act, the physicians and the hospital involved in administering the treatment may be liable under the Act if it can be shown that they were acting under color of state law.

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