State's high court says widow of Jehovah's Witness entitled to death benefits

Chris Rizo Apr. 22, 2009, 11:14am

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Legal Newsline)-The state must pay benefits to the widow of a Jehovah's Witness even though her late husband refused "reasonable and necessary" medical treatment, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled.

The state's high court ruled Tuesday that the widow of Howard Williams is owed death benefits from the state's Workers Safety and Compensation Division.

Williams died at age 67 at a Cheyenne hospital in 2006, after his family refused to allow doctors to use blood products to treat injuries he suffered in a work-related automobile accident. He worked for Capital City Maintenance, Inc.

While being treated at United Medical Center in Cheyenne, he and his wife instructed doctors that they were Jehovah's Witnesses and that no blood products were to be used in his treatment.

When asked if doctors could treat Williams with blood alternatives, such as albumin. Mrs. Williams said she was not sure and needed to wait for her son to arrive at the hospital, court papers indicate.

Dr. M. Whitney Parnell, the treating physician, said Williams died after essentially bleeding to death at the hospital.

The Wyoming Workers Safety and Compensation Division refused to pay death benefits, arguing that the Williams family would not allow him to be treated by physicians.

In its ruling, the justices said the state failed to prove that by refusing blood-product treatment, Williams died. The court ordered the state to pay.

"The critical evidence is Dr. Parnell‟s testimony," Justice Michael Golden wrote for the court's majority. "While she testified Mr. Williams would have had a better chance of survival with a transfusion of appropriate blood products, she never quantified his chance of survival in either event."

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Barton Voigt sided with the state, saying a Workers Safety and Compensation Division hearing officer was correct that blood products could have helped to treat Williams's injuries.

The hearing examiner found that Williams had forfeited all right to benefits when he refused "reasonable and necessary" medical treatment.

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