Obnoxious medical malpractice defense rejected; decision to discontinue life support is not "the cause of death"
The Baldwins brought a medical malpractice claim against their doctors and Hurley Hospital after their son, Ethan suffered hypoxic brain injury during delivery. Ultimately, the Baldwin's son died when the parents elected to discontinue his respiratory support; the Defendants' experts conceded that Ethan "basically would be a vegetable" and his own doctors told the parents that if Ethan survived he would be profoundly impaired.
The doctors' insurance company then persuaded a local judge to dismiss the Baldwin's wrongful death claim because their decision to discontinue life support was a "superseding, intervening cause" of Ethan's death, rendering the treaters no longer responsible. The Court of Appeals unanimously reinstated the case, rejecting outright the insurance company's claim and the trial court's decision.
The Court noted that reasonably foreseeable acts in response to Ethan's condition do not constitute a superseding cause that relieves the at fault doctor from liability. Since it was undisputed that Ethan would have died at birth if he had not been resuscitated, it made no sense to rule as a matter of law that his later care relieved the Defendants from their alleged responsibility for causing the death. Even negligent medical care is considered a foreseeable result of negligently injuring someone: if a wrongdoer causes injury that necessitates treatment, under Michigan law the wrongdoer cannot claim that the negligent treatment excuses the wrongdoer from fault.
The court held that at a minimum the Plaintiff's expert physicians testimony established a factual question with regard to whether the Defendant's alleged negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about Ethan's death. If they caused the condition that ultimately led to his death, they cannot avoid suit simply because the family ultimately gave up on "heroic" measures. The Court relied on longstanding Michigan criminal law jurisprudence in holding that "a decision to terminate life support is not the cause of a patient's subsequent death; rather it merely allows the injury or illness to take it's natural course."