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Doctors and hospitals ignore directions from health care agents at their legal peril according to a recent appellate case, Stewart v. Superior Court.

After ignoring the direction from a patient’s health care agent, the hospital and doctors face claims for elder abuse, fraud by concealment, and medical battery.  The appellate court held that elders have the right to autonomy in the medical decision-making process and that deprivation of this right can constitute actionable “neglect” under California’s elder abuse laws.

Anthony Carter, a 78-year-old man, named Maxine Stewart as his health care agent.  When he was admitted to the hospital, he was advised to get a pacemaker to correct his irregular heartbeat and be placed in hospice care.  His health care agent canceled the heart surgery, suspecting that the irregular heartbeat was caused by Anthony’s sleep apnea, and sought a second medical opinion.

The hospital, following the cancellation of the surgery, convened an ethics committee and decided to proceed with the surgery anyway.  Sometime shortly after surgery, Anthony went into cardiac arrest, supposedly from complications with the pacemaker and ultimately died.  Maxine sought legal help and now the appellate court has allowed her to proceed with her lawsuit against the hospital.

The takeaway for hospitals:

Ignoring directions from a valid health care agent can constitute “neglect” under California’s elder abuse laws, leading to claims of elder abuse, fraud by concealment, and medical battery.

The takeaway for patients:

You can protect yourself by naming a health care agent under a valid Advance Health Care Directive.