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Warthen v. Toms River Community Memorial Hospital

Decided: February 14, 1985.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.

Michels, Petrella and Baime. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.


[199 NJSuper Page 20] Plaintiff Corrine Warthen appeals from a summary judgment of the Law Division dismissing her action against defendant Toms River Community Memorial Hospital (Hospital). Plaintiff sought to recover damages for her allegedly wrongful discharge

in violation of public policy following her refusal to dialyze a terminally ill double amputee patient because of her "moral, medical and philosophical objections" to performing the procedure.

The facts giving rise to this appeal are not in dispute and may be summarized as follows. The Hospital, where plaintiff had been employed for eleven years as a registered nurse, terminated plaintiff from its employment on August 6, 1982. For the three years just prior to her discharge, plaintiff had worked in the Hospital's kidney dialysis unit. It is undisputed that plaintiff was an at-will employee.

Plaintiff alleges that during the summer of 1982 her supervisor periodically assigned her to dialyze a double amputee patient who suffered from a number of maladies. On two occasions plaintiff claims that she had to cease treatment because the patient suffered cardiac arrest and severe internal hemorrhaging during the dialysis procedure. During the first week of 1982 plaintiff again was scheduled to dialyze this patient. She approached her head nurse and informed her that "she had moral, medical, and philosophical objections" to performing this procedure on the patient because the patient was terminally ill and, she contended, the procedure was causing the patient additional complications. At that time the head nurse granted plaintiff's request for reassignment.

On August 6, 1982, the head nurse again assigned plaintiff to dialyze the same patient. Plaintiff once again objected, apparently stating that she thought she had reached agreement with the head nurse not to be assigned to this particular patient. She also requested the opportunity to meet with the treating physician, Dr. DiBello. Dr. DiBello informed plaintiff that the patient's family wished him kept alive through dialysis and that he would not survive without it. However, plaintiff continued to refuse to dialyze the patient, and the head nurse informed her that if she did not agree to perform the treatment, the

Hospital would dismiss her. Plaintiff refused to change her mind, and the Hospital terminated her.

Plaintiff subsequently instituted this action alleging that she was wrongfully discharged by the Hospital without justification and in violation of public policy. The Hospital denied liability to plaintiff and alleged, by way of a separate defense, that plaintiff's termination was appropriate because she had the status of an at-will employee. Following completion of pretrial discovery, the Hospital moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied because it perceived "that there [was] . . . a question of fact as to whether or not there is a public policy as articulated in the nurses' code of ethics that would permit somebody in the nursing profession to refuse to participate in a course of treatment which is against her principles in good faith." However, upon reconsideration, the trial court granted the motion, concluding that "the nurses' code of ethics is a personal moral judgment and permits the nurse to have a personal moral judgment, but it does not rise to a public policy in the face of the general public policies that patients must be cared for in hospitals and patients must be treated basically by doctors and doctors' orders must be carried out." This appeal followed.

Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because her refusal to dialyze the terminally-ill patient was justified as a matter of law by her adherence to the Code for Nurses, a code of ethics promulgated by the American Nurses Association, and that determining whether adherence to the Code "constitutes a public policy question" is a question of fact which should be resolved by a jury, not by the trial court. We disagree.

R. 4:46 permits a party to move for summary judgment at any time. Although summary judgment is a stringent remedy, it should be granted where the pleadings, depositions and answers to interrogatories show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact challenged and that the moving

party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67, 74 (1954); Miller v. U.S. Fidel. & Guar. Co., 127 N.J. Super. 37, 40-41 (App.Div.1974); Rankin v. Sowinski, 119 N.J. Super. 393, 399-400 (App.Div.1972); Eisen v. Kostakos, 116 N.J. Super. 358, 370-371 (App.Div.1971). The purpose of the summary judgment procedure is, with proper adherence to the rules, to avoid trials which would serve no useful purpose and to afford deserving litigants immediate relief. Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, supra, 17 N.J. at 77. Here, the pleadings, depositions and answers to ...

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