Fetuses-aren't-people lawsuit: Colorado Supreme Court declines to hear the case

The Colorado Supreme Court has declined to hear a case in which Englewood-based Catholic Health Initiatives argued that it couldn't be held liable for the deaths of two unborn babies at one of its hospitals because fetuses are not people. The case was the focus of our recent cover story "The Meaning of Life." The decision is a win for the hospital, which admitted that its legal argument was "morally wrong" after being chastised by Colorado's Catholic bishops. But it's a loss for Jeremy Stodghill, the Canon City man whose pregnant wife and unborn twin sons died in 2006.

"I'm disappointed that I didn't get to ask why they didn't try to save my boys," Stodghill says. "The main question I wanted to ask is, 'Why?'

"All they had to do was try," he adds.

Stodghill's wife Lori was 28 weeks pregnant when she died of a pulmonary embolism after collapsing in the emergency room at St. Thomas More Hospital in Canon City. Doctors decided not to do an emergency Cesarean section to try to save the babies -- a move that Stodghill believes was a terrible mistake. So he sued Catholic Health Initiatives and St. Thomas More for the wrongful death of his wife and unborn sons, whom he and his wife had already named Samuel Edward and Zachary James.

Catholic Health Initiatives, which operates 78 Catholic hospitals in seventeen states, petitioned to dismiss the lawsuit. Its most shocking argument? "Under Colorado law, a fetus is not a 'person,'" Catholic Health Initiatives wrote in court documents, "and plaintiff's claims for wrongful death must therefore be dismissed."

The district court judge sided with the hospital and dismissed the lawsuit. But Stodghill wasn't ready to give up, and he filed an appeal. However, he lost that, too. Based on a snippet of testimony in which the OB-GYN expert hired by Stodghill's lawyers testified that he didn't know whether a C-section would have saved the babies, the appellate judges found that Stodghill "failed to produce any evidence" that the doctors' negligence caused the twins to die. The appeals court was silent on the question of whether fetuses are people under the law.

Stodghill and his lawyers believe that snippet of testimony was taken out of context. Experts say that babies have a good chance of survival if a C-section is done within five minutes -- a statement with which the OB-GYN expert hired in this case agreed. Plus, they felt it was wrong that the appeals court had ignored the most controversial argument.

So in September, Stodghill appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. His lawyers asked the court to answer three questions, including whether the appeals court was wrong in dodging the politically sensitive question of whether Stodghill's unborn twins were "people."

But now, the high court has declined to hear the case. The court didn't give a reason why. The document in which the court announced its decision simply says "DENIED."

Catholic Health Initiatives e-mailed the following statement on the decision:

The decision by the Colorado Supreme Court supported both the summary judgment in the District Court of Fremont County in December 2010 and the affirmation of that ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals in Denver in August of 2012.

The physicians, nurses and staff at St. Thomas More Hospital performed to the highest medical and professional standards in their care for Lori Stodghill on New Year's Day of 2006. All three courts supported the evidence in this case. That evidence demonstrated indisputably that nothing done at the hospital would have altered the outcome or saved the lives of Lori Stodghill and her unborn twin sons.

The prayers and sympathies of the entire Catholic Health Initiatives community continue to be with the Stodghill family.

We've also put in a call to J.D. Flynn, the Archdiocese of Denver's chancellor, to see if Colorado's Catholic bishops have any comment. We'll update this post if and when we hear back. We'll also update if and when we hear more from Stodghill and his attorneys.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Fetuses-aren't-people argument was 'morally wrong,' says Catholic hospital."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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