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A Michigan jury has declined to find negligence on the part of a hospital and its doctors in a case that began eight years ago after a father disconnected the life support of his infant son born 15 weeks premature. The case inspired ethical questions over which party had the more compelling interests in the decision to resuscitate a child — the hospital or the parents. Messenger v. Sparrow, No. CV-96-83977-NH (Oct. 16, 2002). In the hour following the birth of his son on Feb. 8, 1994, Greg Messenger entered the child’s room and disconnected the breathing tubes from the 1-pound, 11-ounce infant. Messenger, a Michigan-area dermatologist, and his wife, Traci, claimed that Sparrow Hospital had resuscitated the baby against their wishes. The couple asserted that they had instructed the hospital not to revive the child after doctors warned that he could be born brain-damaged and underdeveloped. The father was prosecuted on manslaughter charges and faced up to 15 years in prison. He was acquitted by a jury in 1995. One year later, the couple filed a lawsuit against the hospital and its doctors, John Addy, an obstetrician, and Padmani Karna, a neonatologist, alleging wrongful death and multiple acts of negligence. They alleged that Sparrow doctors failed to treat Traci Messenger’s lung condition after she was admitted for contractions and that fluid buildup had deprived the baby of oxygen. After 10 weeks of testimony from more than 30 witnesses, an Ingham County, Mich., jury declined to find the hospital at fault. The jury of five men and five women was swayed by Sparrow’s lead lawyer, John P. Ryan of Detroit’s Kitch Drutchas Wagner DeNardis & Valitutti, who argued that the standard of care was consistent with neonatal practices across the country. Given the variable clinical information and the fact that each premature child responds differently, Ryan told the jury, Sparrow doctors provided the parents with the most accurate information they could have. According to Ryan, Sparrow told the couple that their child had a 30 percent to 50 percent chance of survival, and a 20 percent to 40 percent chance of intercranial hemorrhage. “But they stressed that each baby is different,” he added, so doctors advised that, “‘We need to adopt a wait-and-see attitude until the baby is delivered.’” Karna’s words were not “unduly pessimistic,” he said. ‘WRONGFUL-LIFE’ CLAIM DROPPED But the issue of compelling interest in the decision to resuscitate was never put to the jury, because the Messengers withdrew a so-called wrongful-life claim over the hospital’s decision to resuscitate the baby. The jury addressed only the issue of wrongful death. The Messengers’ lawyer, James Heos of East Lansing, Mich.’s Church, Kirtselis & Wyble, did not return phone calls. Ryan speculated that the plaintiffs’ decision to withdraw the wrongful-life claim was probably based on the inherent conflict of simultaneously arguing a wrongful-life and a wrongful-death claim. The hospital maintained that it had never obliged the parents with a “do not resuscitate” order. “The standard of care around the county is to resuscitate a baby of 25 weeks,” Ryan asserted. “A neonatologist has a duty to a child. Not just a civil legal duty — there are criminal ramifications as well.” In the eight years since the baby was born, the Messengers have had two other children.

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