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Overview of “Death with Dignity” Laws

Over the past couple of decades, many people have come to support what are known as “Death with Dignity Laws.”  A few states, including California, have enacted such laws which are aimed to help terminally ill individuals stop the pain and suffering, ending their lives in the most comfortable way possible.  While Death with Dignity Laws have ample support in California and a few other states, many individuals oppose laws that they believe to be immoral.  The information below provides a general overview of California’s Death with Dignity Laws and how these new laws may play a role in allegations of medical malpractice.

The “End of Life Option Act”

California is the fourth state to enact laws that allow terminally ill individuals to end their life by choice, and with the assistance of a licensed physician.  The End of Life Option Act

was signed into law on October 5, 2015.  For a terminally ill individual to end his or her life under the law, he or she must (1) be diagnosed with a terminal disease by a physician, and (2) have the mental capacity to make his or her own medical decisions.  If a terminally ill California resident meets this criterion, he or she may obtain life-ending medication by prescription, otherwise known as an “aid-in-dying” drug.

The three other states which already have Death with Dignity laws include Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.  Additionally, while Montana does not have legislation like that of California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, the Montana Supreme Court determined that Montana law does not prevent a physician from fulfilling the wishes of a mentally competent terminally ill individual who wishes to end his or her life in the most comfortable way possible.

“Death with Dignity” Laws are Gaining Support Throughout the United States

There will always be opposition to any law which raises a controversial issue, as we all have our own morals, beliefs, and opinions.  Despite such opposition to the idea of Death with Dignity laws, 17 states have considered enacting laws similar to those of California, Oregon, and Vermont, according to the Death with Dignity National Center.  These proposed laws would allow qualifying adults to seek aid-in-dying medication from a prescribing physician.

Additionally, in October of 2015, Senator Barbara Boxer of California introduced the End of Suffering Act of 2015, and this set of laws is currently pending before the U.S. Senate.  These proposed laws would be similar to those already enacted in California and other states.

Brittany Maynard Paves the Way for “Death with Dignity” Laws in California

Brittany Maynard, a 20-year-old terminally ill California resident, made the decision to move to Oregon to obtain an aid-in-dying drug to end her discomfort.  Her actions gained national attention, shedding light on how Oregon’s death with dignity laws can help those who are suffering from a terminal illness.  Brittany passed away in November 2014 when she ingested a lethal dose of an aid-in-dying prescription drug.  Brittany’s story helped California eventually pass its own Death with Dignity laws.

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Laws – A Backdrop for Other States

Oregon’s Death with Dignity laws are a template for other states to propose and enact similar laws.  In all variations of the law, an eligible patient must be a competent adult, and must also be diagnosed with a terminal illness by a licensed physician.  Upon a written request to their doctors, eligible patients may obtain an aid-in-dying medication to end their lives. The written request must be signed by two witnesses, and one of the witnesses cannot be related to the terminally ill individual, nor be entitled to any portion of the loved one’s estate, be his or her physician, or be employed by a healthcare facility providing care to the terminally ill patient.

To obtain a prescription for an aid-in-dying drug, a patient’s medical records must be examined by a second physician to confirm that the patient does have a terminal illness.  Additionally, a physician must make an assessment of whether or not the patient is mentally competent and able to make his or her own medical decisions.

There is yet another step that must be followed before a patient can obtain an aid-in-dying drug.  If both physicians approve a patient’s request, that patient must wait for a minimum of 15 days before requesting the aid-in-dying drug for a second time.  However, the second request does not need to be in writing.  A patient can make a verbal request to the approving physician(s).  A patient will always have the opportunity to change his or her mind after receiving an aid-in-dying drug.

California’s Laws Shield Doctors from Liability – The Impact on Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

Oregon’s Death with Dignity laws provide doctors with immunity from liability if they have complied with the laws when prescribing aid-in-dying drugs to terminally ill patients.  California’s laws have gone further to provide even more protection to doctors to the point that a doctor can be free from liability even if he or she has acted in bad faith or has committed clear acts of gross negligence.  The California Medical Association (CMA) pushed for such broad immunity to protect doctors.  This may make it difficult for injured patients and their loved ones to file valid lawsuits, and could become an issue as time goes by.

Sacramento Wrongful Death lawyer

I’m Ed Smith, a Sacramento Wrongful Death Lawyer.   If you or a family member has been seriously hurt in any accident, including alleged medical malpractice, please call me today at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400 for free, friendly advice.

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