AL Woman Sues Doctor for Wrongful Death After Miscarriage at 6 Weeks

Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2017.

In a unanimous decision of all eight justices on January 3, 2017, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled to allow a wrongful death claim involving the death of a six-week-old fetus. This ruling reversed a previous Jefferson County judge’s order that dismissed the Helena woman’s claim. The Supreme Court judges ruled that a circuit judge had made a mistake in stating that the doctor was immune from civil lawsuits for wrongful death involving a fetus that had not yet reached the stage of viability.

The History of Legal Protection for Unborn Children

In the Roe v. Wade case of 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled on the issue of abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution extended to her decision to have an abortion. However, this right must work in balance with the state’s rules on regulating abortions. The Court ruled that the “balancing test” would tie state regulation to the third trimester of pregnancy. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruled against the third trimester framework of the Roe v. Wade decision, stating that in light of medical advances “fetal viability” may occur at 23 or 24 weeks.

In Alabama in 2012, Supreme Court Justice Tom Parker asserted his belief that states should reject the concept of fetus viability and give full legal rights to unborn children. Justice Parker made this statement after ruling that a DeKalb County woman had the right to pursue a wrongful death claim on behalf of an unborn child who was not old enough to live outside the womb. The previous definition of viable was that a fetus could live outside the womb, with or without medical assistance. The 2012 ruling did not change Alabama’s abortion laws, but it did set the stage for wrongful death claims for previable fetuses.

Justice Parker stated that the declaration in Roe v. Wade about unborn children not being “persons” in regard to the 14th Amendment had nothing to do with whether unborn children are “persons” in the eyes of state law. In January 2017, Justice Parker said the Alabama Supreme Court ruling for the Helena woman further reaffirms the Court’s stance that Alabama’s wrongful death law protects children from the point of conception. He stated that while this has not always been the case in Alabama, today the viability standard starts the “moment life begins at conception.” He stated that the idea of life starting at conception was “beyond refutation.”

Current Wrongful Death Rules

The 2017 Alabama Supreme Court ruling sets a precedent in the state for allowing wrongful death claims for unborn fetuses from the moment of conception onward, not at the previously established timeline for fetal viability at 23–24 weeks. The Helena woman, Kimberly Stinnett, filed a claim against Dr. Kennedy for wrongful death in 2012 after experiencing a miscarriage at close to six weeks’ gestation. Stinnett’s regular obstetrician (not Kennedy) affirmed that Stinnett was pregnant on May 9, 2012. Two days later, Stinnett called her obstetrician’s answering service and spoke with Dr. Kennedy complaining of fever and abdominal cramping.

Dr. Kennedy performed a surgical procedure on Stinnett to determine if her pregnancy was ectopic, as Stinnett had a history of two prior miscarriages and a prior ectopic pregnancy. The procedure showed that there was no ectopic pregnancy, but that she felt there had been a miscarriage. Dr. Kennedy ordered methotrexate, a drug intended to cause the termination of a pregnancy. The recent ruling by the AL Supreme Court held that Stinnett could in fact file a wrongful death claim against Dr. Kennedy for the death of her unborn child. Many believe this could be the beginning of similar rulings protecting the rights of nonviable fetuses.