Bioethics Blogs

Jahi McMath Federal Lawsuit Stayed Pending Outcome of Brain Death Diagnosis Issue in State Court

Judge Haywood Gilliam

On December 12, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued two rullings in Jahi McMath’s federal lawsuit against the State of California and Alameda County.  

1.  Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars federal courts from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over a proceeding in which a party losing in state court seeks what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in federal court.

In 2013, the Alameda County Superior Court  found that McMath had suffered brain death and was deceased as defined under Health and Safety Code sections 7180 and 7181.  Therefore, the federal court held that McMath cannot now request a declaration that Ms. McMath “did not suffer, on December 13, 2013, irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” and that McMath “was not ever ‘brain dead’ by pertinent California statute.”  

On the other hand, the court held that McMath can still bring her other claims, including a request to present to a court for the first time evidence of her neurological function subsequent to the issuance of her facially invalid death certificate.

2.  Pullman Abstention

Pullman abstention allows federal courts to refrain from deciding sensitive federal constitutional questions when state law issues may moot or narrow the constitutional questions.

Because the McMath family’s ongoing medical malpractice action in state court is proceeding and because the issues in this case are unique, the federal court stayed McMath’s federal action pending the outcome in state court as to whether under California law a brain death diagnosis can or must be overturned based on subsequent evidence of brain function.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.