In Colorado, the Catholic Church apparently doesn't know what its lawyers are up to.

In 2006, Jeremy Stodghill filed a medical malpractice/wrongful death case after his wife, seven months pregnant at the time, died at St. Thomas More Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Canon City, Colorado. In addition, the twin fetuses she was carrying died as well.

Mr. Stodghill brought his wife to the Emergency Room that day after she experienced vomiting and shortness of breath. He dropped his wife in the ER and went to park the car. By the time he returned to the ER, his wife had lost consciousness. Approximately an hour later, Ms. Stodghill suffered a heart attack and died. The twins had been left inside her womb and they died as well. Stodghill sued, alleging that the twins could have been saved if medical personnel had taken appropriate emergency action. Despite being paged, the on-call obstetrician never responded. An ER nurse listened for fetal heart sounds, but none were heard. The ER doctor then decided against taking any action to save the babies.

The hospital’s lawyers, in defending the case, argued in part, that under Colorado law, a fetus is NOT a person, therefore, the twins could not recover anything in a lawsuit. Two lower courts have sided with the hospital and Stodghill’s case is now before the Colorado Supreme Court.

The hospital’s argument that a fetus is NOT a person directly contradicts the Church’s position that life begins at conception. After news of the story broke a couple of day ago, three Colorado bishops said they will conduct a “…full review of this litigation and of the policies and practices…to ensure fidelity to and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Okay, so the church has recognized that taking a legal position directly contrary to its position that life begins at conception might raise some eyebrows. So the Church will “review” the litigation. Is the Church really suggesting that it didn’t know its lawyers had taken this position? Hard to imagine. Cosider that the Colorado statute of limitations for medical malpractice is 2 years – so presumably this case has been on file since 2008 or earlier. And the case is currently residing with the state Supreme Court. So this “fetus is not a human defense” was likely originally raised in a motion, and then briefed by the parties. The motion was then probably argued before the trial judge. The trial judge granted the motion. That order eliminated a substantial portion of the case. Typically, lawyers tell their clients when good things happen. In the old days, lawyers did that via snail mail. Nowadays, good results can be transmitted in seconds via email. The Church’s lawyers seem very capable. Maybe the Church internet connection was down.

Then the plaintiff appealed to the Colorado Appellate Court. Appellate Briefs were probably drafted. Those briefs have to spell out the legal arguments in detail, citing the statute and relevant case law. Appellate lawyers often send copies of the briefs to their clients for review or simply to let them know the work is being done. The Appellate Court then apparently upheld the trial court’s ruling, most likely in a written opinion. Once again, that would have been good news for the Church. Most appellate lawyers, proud of a good result, immediately share that with the client, oftentimes providing a copy of the the opinion. The Church hasn’t commented if it was aware of the Appellate Court ruling.

The plaintiff then appealed the Appellate Court’s ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court. A couple of news stories pop up in local papers and on the internet that Church lawyers are arguing a fetus doesn’t have legal status. Someone wakes the Most Reverend Bishops and they are most disturbed. They are going to look into this.

Maybe the Church was utterly clueless that its lawyers had taken a position directly contrary to Catholic teachings. And maybe the Church was aware that if successful, that position, would afford the Church an opportunity to eliminate the potential of a multi-million dollar settlement or verdict. So the Church simply decided to keep quiet and hope nobody makes a stink. Sound familiar?

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