Court orders benefits in Jehovah's Witness case

Associated Press/April 21, 2009

Cheyenne, Wyoming - The state incorrectly withheld death benefits from the family of a Jehovah's Witness who died from low blood pressure because it couldn't prove that treatment refused by the family would've saved the man, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In the ruling written by Justice Michael Golden, the court found that the Wyoming Workers Safety and Compensation Division must pay the widow of 67-year-old Howard W. Williams, who died after surgery to remove a ruptured spleen.

Court records showed that the Williams family told Dr. M. Whitney Parnell at Cheyenne's United Medical Center they were Jehovah's Witnesses and didn't want any blood products used to treat Williams after a work-related vehicle accident.

The state later refused to pay the benefits to Sharon Williams, ruling that she wasn't entitled because her husband had refused reasonable and necessary medical treatment.

But the court noted that Parnell, the doctor, had testified using the blood products would have increased Williams' chance of survival but would not have guaranteed it.

"Therefore, under the specific facts of this case, the acceptance of the transfusion of blood products cannot be deemed to be 'reasonably essential' to Mr. Williams' survival," Golden wrote in the Tuesday ruling.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the legal organization of the Jehovah's Witnesses that brought the case before the high court, had argued that the denial of Sharon

Williams' application for death benefits violated the right to free exercise of religion.

The court ruling didn't address the constitutional argument, saying it didn't need to reach that point before ruling in Williams' favor on other grounds.

Senior assistant attorney general Mike Causey said Tuesday that it was "very interesting that we do have a dissent in this case."

Chief Justice Barton R. Voigt, who filed the dissenting opinion, agreed with the state and called Parnell's treatment of the patient "the road less traveled."

Don Sullivan, Sharon Williams' attorney, said the ruling meant she was entitled to a one-time payment of $25,000 plus funeral expenses for her husband.

"Wyoming does not treat injured workers well. It never has," Sullivan said. "That's a one-shot deal."

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