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Gay Woman Fights over Hospital Visitation Rights in Miami court
A gay woman not allowed to visit her dying partner at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 2007 hopes a federal judge will allow her claims of emotional distress and negligence to go to trial.
MIAMI - As her partner of 17 years slipped into a coma, Janice Langbehn pleaded with doctors and anyone who would listen to let her into the woman's hospital room.
Eight anguishing hours passed before Langbehn would be allowed into Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center. By then, she could only say her final farewell as a priest performed the last rites on 39-year-old Lisa Marie Pond.
Jackson staffers advised Langbehn that she could not see Pond earlier because the hospital's visitation policy in cases of emergency was limited to immediate family and spouses -- not partners. In Florida, same-sex marriages or partnerships are not recognized. On Friday, two years after her partner's death, Langbehn and her attorneys were in federal court, claiming emotional distress and negligence in a suit they filed last June.
Jackson attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds that the hospital has no obligation to allow patients' visitors.
Following a hearing lasting more than an hour Friday, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan said he would try to decide soon whether the case could proceed to trial. He gave no specific date.
The suit is winding its way through federal court only months after voters approved the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The statewide amendment garnered more than 62 percent of voters -- surpassing the 60 percent threshold required for ratification.
Supporters of Florida's Amendment 2 -- mostly conservatives and Christian groups -- argued it was needed to protect families and the traditional institution of marriage by promoting homes with a mom and a dad.
Opponents argued that gay and straight, unmarried Floridians risked losing domestic partner benefits, such as health insurance, hospital visitation rights and the ability to make end-of-life decisions.
At Friday's hearing, Langbehn's lawyers argued the case should be tried because Langbehn had the proper documentation to make medical decisions on behalf of her partner, and was not consulted about Pond's condition for hours despite seeking answers every 20 minutes.
''This is not just about same-sex couples,'' said attorney Donald Hayden, who is also representing the Langbehn family. ``This is about protecting the legal access that a parent has to see a child, or an essential loved ones right to be aware of what is going on with their loved one.''
Attorneys for Jackson argued that hospital staff did not purposely try to harm the family or cause emotional stress.
''There's just not enough there to say that these doctors intentionally tried to cause distress,'' attorney Andrew Boese told the judge.
Pond's medical problems began in February 2007 when she, Langbehn and their three adopted children were aboard a cruise ship docked in Miami. The Washington state couple and their children were on vacation.
Pond suddenly collapsed from a heart attack and was rushed to the trauma center.
Though Langbehn had documents declaring her Pond's legal guardian and giving her the medical ''power of attorney,'' Jackson officials refused to recognize her or the kids as family.
Langbehn, who still lives in Washington, was not available for comment Friday, but in a 2007 interview with The Miami Herald she said, ``Any family should have the right to hold their loved one's hand in the last moments of life, and we were denied that.''
Langbehn's supporters are livid about the hospital's actions.
''We are here to ensure that families get the respect they deserve at Jackson Memorial Hospital and to prevent Janice's tragedy from happening to anyone else,'' said Beth Littrell, an attorney for Lambda Legal, a national group that fights for the civil rights of gays. ``This family deserves to have its day in court.''