Withdrawing Life Sustaining Treatment – Betancourt v Trinitas – Appellate Court Decision

The New Jersey Superior Court–Appellate Division dismissed the appeal in Betancourt v Trinitas finding the appeal moot. The court stressed it’s concern over the  “sparse record” presented at the time of  the original hearing in the trial court as well as on appeal and found that the evidence was not “conclusive in several areas necessary to fully adjudicate the substantial issues raised.” This is sometimes referred to as insufficiency of evidence. If the person or entity bringing the case does not provide sufficient evidence the court will dismiss the claim. In this case Tinitas Hospital’s request to withdraw the ventilator.

Ruben Betancourt, 72 years old, was unconscious following the dislodging of a ventilator breathing tube after surgery at Trinitas Medical Center, which resulted in anoxic encephalopathy. He was readmitted to Trinitas in July 2008 with a diagnosis of renal failure. He received dialysis treatments, remained on a ventilator, and feeding tube. The physicians at Trinitas diagnosed Mr. Betancourt as being in a persistent vegetative state and told the family of their intention to stop dialysis and allow him to die.

 “We do not decide the issue but raise it to emphasize why the “thin” and disputed record is so critical to a full analysis.”

The Superior Court in New Jersey (trial court) held a two day hearing and thereafter enjoined the hospital from withdrawing life support without the consent of Betancourt’s daughter, Jacqueline, who was appointed his guardian. Mr. Betancourt remained at Trinitas, on the ventilator, receiving dialysis and on a feeding tube until his death in May 2009. The case nevertheless went forward because the attorneys argued that this dilemma is a common occurrence and needs to be clarified by the court.

What this court clarified is that insufficient evidence was presented to consider the issues of withdrawing life-sustaining treatment.  As I pointed out in my previous post: 

            “… the physicians caring for this patient are required to place before the surrogate all medical evidence.

1.        CT and MRI scans,

2.        EEGs,

3.        All respiratory records and any potential to wean him from the ventilator. 

4.        Does he have a tracheostomy?

5.        Are his serious bed sores being tended to or ignored?

6.        What infectious disease is he suffering from?

7.        Is he responding to antibiotics?

8.        To what degree was his brain damaged due to anoxic encephalopathy?

9.        Has the physicians and or hospital discussed the events leading up to the hypoxic event, or hid from it because of concern of liability.

10.      Has all evidence been preserved, provided to the surrogate

11.       Has the ethics committee reviewed the case? If so where is their written report, findings and recommendations?

12.       Have bioethicists and or lawyers participated in conferences with  surrogate?

13.           ETC.

The surrogate cannot perform the job of a surrogate in the dark. This is where detailed records of the conversations and meeting held with the surrogate, family and physicians and reports from the ethics committees are critical to the surrogate’s understanding the issues in order to make a legitimate decision.”


“The uncertainty and lack of true consensus as to Rubin’s condition may generate a result that will not only apply to a patient in a non-cognitive, vegetative state, but to a patient who is impaired and in possession of some level of awareness.”

Attorneys representing the hospital chose not to bring necessary evidence. Attorneys pick and choose what evidence they wish to disclose as favorable to their client’s position. We can only surmise that the evidence not produced was not favorable. It is often said that bad facts make bad law. A case of great importance to so many must be decided on clear findings of fact.

“…the judge concluded that Ruben was unconscious and in a persistent vegetative state. As it was not necessary to the decision that he reached, the judge made no specific findings, however, concerning Rubin’s ability to perceive pain or react to his surroundings. The uncertainty and lack of true consensus as to Rubin’s condition may generate a result that will not only apply to a patient in a non-cognitive, vegetative state, but to a patient who is impaired and in possession of some level of awareness.”

The absence in evidence of the usual procedures when an impasse is reached between physicians and patients is to call for help – from consulting bioethicists and ethics committees who will bring to bear physicians of various specialties, lawyers, lay people and clergy from the community. The surrogate decision maker would then have the benefit of views – and the reasons therefore – to consider facts outside any adversarial proceeding.

There was no indication that this review or participation of the bioethics consultant, or even be ethics committee, was involved in the attempt to resolve the dispute between the patient’s surrogate and be patient’s physician.

Thus, the attorneys representing the hospital did not give to the trial court sufficient facts to make a decision to the grant the withholding of life-sustaining treatment to Mr. Betancourt. .  As the court said in the opinion in this case: “We do not decide the issue but raise it to emphasize why the “thin” and disputed record is so critical to a full analysis.”

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