Husband of brain-dead pregnant woman sues Texas hospital keeping her on ventilator

DALLAS - The husband of a brain dead, pregnant Texas woman who is being kept on life support is suing the hospital for not following her and her family’s directives to not place the woman on a ventilator.

Erick Munoz filed the lawsuit in the 17th District Court in Tarrant County, Texas. He asks a judge to order John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth to remove life support for his wife Marlise Munoz, who was found unconscious in November and has been declared brain dead since then. 

But the hospital says a state law prohibits life-saving treatment from being denied to pregnant patients. Experts familiar with the law say the hospital is incorrectly applying the statute.

"Marlise Munoz is dead, and she gave clear instructions to her husband and family -- Marlise was not to remain on any type of artificial 'life sustaining treatment', ventilators or the like," the lawsuit says. "There is no reason JPS should be allowed to continue treatment on Marlise Munoz's dead body."

The office of the district attorney for Tarrant County Texas acknowledged the lawsuit in a statement sent to CBS News. It will be serving as legal counsel for the hospital for this particular court case.

“Attorneys became aware of the lawsuit just before noon Tuesday and will file a response in due course. To our knowledge, no hearing has been set at this time. Because litigation is pending, we will have no further comment on this suit at this time,” the office of Joe Shannon, Jr., said in a statement

Erick found his pregnant wife unconscious on the floor of  

 their home on Nov. 26. She may have had a deadly blood clot known as a pulmonary embolism, but the family is unsure of what caused her condition. She was declared brain dead shortly after arriving at John Peter Smith Hospital, and was 14 weeks pregnant at the time.

The health of the fetus is unknown. Munoz is believed to have been without oxygen for some time before her husband found her.

A 2010 article in the journal BMC Medicine found 30 cases of brain-dead pregnant women over about 30 years. Of 19 reported results, the journal found 12 in which a viable child was born and had post-birth data for two years on only six of them - all of whom developed normally, according to the journal.

Since Erick and his wife were both paramedics, they had discussed end-of-life medical decisions with each other and their families. Her family concurs.

“She did not want to be on life support,” her mom Lynne Machado told CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez last week. “We knew what her wishes were as well as her husband’s, so we were all on the same page.”

The hospital has cited a provision of the Texas Advance Directives Act that reads: "A person may not withdraw or withhold life-sustaining treatment under this subchapter from a pregnant patient."

CBS News legal analyst Jack Ford said on CBS This Morning last week that the Texas law means that the usual choices that dictate termination of life support -- including a “living will” that can detail a person’s wishes regarding life support, a medical power of attorney document regarding who will be in charge of care of the patient, or a family’s wishes -- take a back seat in the Munoz case.

“Usually, unless someone is arguing, the hospital will follow (personal or family wishes),” Ford said. “Here it’s complicated because you have this statute in Texas, one of the states that says, ‘We are going to recognize that another life is involved with this.'”

But, experts interviewed by The Associated Press, including two who helped draft the legislation, believe a brain dead patient's case wouldn't be covered by the law.

"This patient is neither terminally nor irreversibly ill," said Dr. Robert Fine, clinical director of the office of clinical ethics and palliative care for Baylor Health Care System. "Under Texas law, this patient is legally dead."

Hospital spokesperson J.R. Labbe has said hospital officials stand by their decision: "This is not a difficult decision for us. We are following the law."