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Law School Case Brief

State v. Pelham - 176 N.J. 448, 824 A.2d 1082 (2003)

Rule:

Removal of life support, as a matter of law, may not constitute an independent intervening cause for purposes of lessening a criminal defendant's liability. Removal of life support in conformity with a victim's expressed wishes is not a legally cognizable cause of death in New Jersey. The defendant's desire to mitigate his liability may never legally override, in whole, or in part, the decisions of the physicians and the family regarding the treatment of the victim. Removal of life-sustaining treatment is a victim's right. It is thus foreseeable that a victim may exercise his or her right not to be placed on, or to be removed from, life support systems. Because the exercise of the right does not break unexpectedly, or in any extraordinary way, the chain of causation that a defendant initiated and that led to the need for life support, it is not an intervening cause that may be advanced by the defendant.

Facts:

Defendant Sonney Pelham was intoxicated and hit another car, causing the other driver to suffer extremely serious injuries. The victim was eventually taken off life support due to his critical condition, including paralysis, multiple other injuries, and constant medical problems due to his condition. He died shortly after the ventilator was removed. Defendant was charged with first-degree manslaughter in contravention of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4a. Defense counsel filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, contending that the removal of the ventilator constituted an independent intervening cause that insulated defendant from criminal liability. The trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss, finding that removal of life support was not an intervening cause. At trial, the jury was instructed that the victim's removal from a respirator did not constitute an independent intervening cause, and accordingly did not break the chain of causality between defendant's acts and the victim's death. The jury acquitted defendant of aggravated manslaughter, but convicted him of the lesser-included offense of second-degree vehicular homicide. Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred when it instructed the jury that removal of life support was not an intervening cause if death was the "natural result" of defendant's actions. The Appellate Division agreed and reversed the conviction. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for certification.

Issue:

Did the trial court err in instructing the jury that removal of life support was not an intervening cause that could remove or lessen defendant’s criminal responsibility? 

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court explained that public policy, as developed by case law and through legislative enactment, clearly recognizes that an individual has the right to refuse devices or techniques for sustaining life, including the withholding of food and the removal of life support. Longstanding, clear policy of this State recognizes the constitutional, common-law, and now statutorily based right of an individual to accept, reject, or discontinue medical treatment in the form of life supporting devices or techniques.

The Court held that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury that a victim's decision to invoke his right to terminate life support may not, as a matter of law, be considered an independent intervening cause capable of breaking the chain of causation triggered by defendant's wrongful actions. According to the Court, removal of life-sustaining treatment was a victim's right. It was thus foreseeable that a victim may exercise his or her right not to be placed on, or to be removed from, life support systems. Because the exercise of the right did not break unexpectedly, or in any extraordinary way, the chain of causation that a defendant initiated and that led to the need for life support, it was not an intervening cause that may be advanced by defendant. As such, the trial court's statement was correct as a matter of law, and its effect was not the equivalent of directing a verdict when the charge was read a whole. The Court then reversed the order of the appellate division and remanded the matter to the trial court for reinstatement of the trial court’s judgment of conviction against defendant.

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