A MATTER OF FAITH return to matthewfranck.com
A Jehovah's Witness is hurt in a work-related car accident. He refuses a blood transfusion on religious grounds and dies. Now the Missouri Supreme Court is set to rule on whether his widow should receive death benefits.
PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN GOODEN Sharon Wilcut holds a flannel shirt that belonged to her now-deceased husband, Floyd. She keeps the shirt hanging on her headboard seven years after his death. Sharon Wilcut is suing to force Innovative Warehouse to continue death benefit payments.
By Matthew Franck
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
As Floyd Wilcut lay dying in a hospital bed from a work-related truck accident, he saw a choice between survival and salvation.
He chose to spare his soul, refusing a blood transfusion that likely would have saved his life. And in dying, the devout Jehovah's Witness stayed true to a tenet of his faith.
In the eight years since, the courts, an insurance company, his employer and a state commission have second-guessed his decision.
Each has offered ideas of whether his choice to refuse medical care was, in legal terms, "reasonable." And each has wrestled over whether that decision disqualifies his widow from collecting death benefits for his work-related injuries.
Now, the question lies before the state's highest court, in a case that raises questions about freedom of religion and who's responsible for decisions based on faith.
But for Sharon Wilcut, what's really at stake is her deceased husband's honor.
"He died faithful, " she said. "And that's why I'm still fighting, so he has the right to die upholding Jehovah's law."
The issue before the Missouri Supreme Court is the degree to which Wilcut's faith should be accommodated within the state's workers' compensation system.
Family supporters say the issue is clear-cut: Floyd Wilcut died after a work injury. His religion and how it related to his medical care, they argue, should have nothing to do with his employer's responsibility to pay.
"Should the company be off the hook because he made a decision based on faith?" asks Paul D. Polidoro, a lawyer from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, aJehovah's Witness organization. "What did he do to put himself in this situation? Nothing."
Others see Wilcut as responsible for the consequences of his decision. By refusing the blood transfusion, they say, he chose not only to die, but also the cause of his death.
"The issue is that the employee refused medical treatment, " said Mary Ann Lindsey, a lawyer who represents Wilcut's employer and its insurer.
Living the doctrine
Long before Floyd Wilcut's delivery truck inexplicably veered off the road on a route 60 miles from his hometown of Farmington, about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis, his mind had been made up on the issue of blood transfusions.
Wilcut, his wife and two sons converted to the Jehovah's Witness faith in the early 1980s. Together with a flock of 100 other faithful, they regularly proselytized door-to-door in and around Farmington. Among the countless pamphlets Wilcut handed out were ones proclaiming the sin of accepting blood transfusions. According toJehovah's Witnesses, blood transfusions violate scriptural edicts to "keep abstaining ... from blood."
Wilcut didn't just profess the doctrine; he lived it. Four years before his work accident, he underwent a bypass heart surgery without a transfusion.
Like many of the faith, Wilcut carried a folded legal document in his wallet proclaiming his rejection of transfusions and authorizing family members to carry out his wishes on his behalf.
But that didn't stop doctors from repeatedly asking, and even pleading, that the family reconsider after the accident, which took place in April 2000. Floyd Wilcut, who couldn't speak in the hospital, nodded when doctors asked him if he was refusing the treatment.
Even so, Sharon Wilcut said, the requests from doctors kept coming, with each offering a more grim assessment of her husband's chances without a transfusion.
The accident ejected Wilcut from his truck as it flipped in a field. His injuries were serious, including face lacerations and a partial scalping.
Austin Giffin, an elder in the local Jehovah's Witness congregation and a friend of the family, said those who refuse blood transfusions know the medical risks. He said the doctrine is followed on faith, without any expectation that God will cure those who obey.
"For us, it's our belief in the creator that makes us do it, " Giffin said.
Five days after the accident, Floyd Wilcut died.
Later, a doctor who treated Wilcut told a court that the sole cause of death was severe anemia attributed to a lack of a blood transfusion. The death, he said, was "totally preventable."
There was no legal dispute initially over Wilcut's death.
Sharon Wilcut began receiving regular checks from her husband's employer covering 70 percent of his salary, or the equivalent of about $290 a week. In addition, the company, Innovative Warehousing, and its insurer, American Manufacturer's Mutual, paid nearly $70,000 in medical bills.
Then, a year after the accident, the checks stopped. Sharon Wilcut said only then did the company raise the issue of the blood transfusion.
Court documents describe the payments as temporary, offered to cover the time that Wilcut would have needed to recover from the accident had he accepted the transfusion and lived.
But Sharon Wilcut claims the company owes her death benefits, and even told her she would receive payments until she died or remarried. She views the termination of benefits as an infringement on her husband's right to follow his faith.
Others say his religious liberties were never threatened. No doctor forced him to accept a transfusion.
"This case isn't about the exercise of a religious belief. It is about money, " wrote Missouri Appeals Court Judge Kenneth Romines, in a dissenting opinion of an appeals court ruling to grant the family death benefits.
Even so, disagreements over religious liberties have hounded the case as it has moved through the courts. Not paying the family, some say, violates the freedom of worship, since it imposes a financial penalty for adhering to one's beliefs. But paying the family, others say, also places the state at risk of favoring one faith above another.
In a controversial line of legal reasoning, the case has repeatedly seen judges and a state commission attempt to inhabit the thinking of a devout Jehovah'sWitness.
The system has deliberated Floyd Wilcut's decision in his absence, within the context of his faith.
Jack Knowlan Jr., a chief administrative law judge for the division of workers' compensation, was the first to hear the case.
At issue is whether Wilcut's refusal of a transfusion was "reasonable." That particular term is critical, since state law releases employers from claims if patients unreasonably refuse medical treatment.
By Knowlan's judgment, Wilcut's decision was reasonable for a Jehovah's Witness. After all, the judge concluded, while he could have saved his life, doing so would have brought damnation.
But the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relation Commission, to whom the case was first appealed, argued that Wilcut should have taken the transfusion. If that was a sin, he could have repented for it, the commission decided.
That decision was reversed yet again by an appeals court, which ruled that Wilcut's religious wishes should be respected.
But that ruling drew a passionate dissent from Romines, who argued that the court has no business inserting itself in the thinking of religious doctrine. Otherwise, he argued, the courts could be forced to rule that it's reasonable for a Jehovah's Witness to reject a transfusion, but not for a Methodist or atheist.
As the case was argued before the Missouri Supreme Court last month, several judges agreed that deliberating over personal religious decisions is perilous.
"Aren't we on a slippery slope when we have government making decisions based on whether someone's religious beliefs are unreasonable?" asked Judge Richard B. Teitelman.
Sharon Wilcut isn't expecting the court to rule on her case for at least six weeks. She knows it's the end of the line for her legal battles. She is also at the end of her rope financially. While she still collects her husband's Social Security benefits, she has lost two houses and a car.
But the case, she said, has already prevailed in honoring her husband.
"His death showed what true faith is, " she said.
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