Defining Death: McKitty v Hayani
Last month, in the case of McKitty v Hayani, 2019 ONCA 805, the Ontario Court of Appeal had to consider a challenge to the medical and common law definition of death on the grounds of freedom of religion. The Court also considered whether someone’s religious beliefs should be a factor when deciding whether they are legally deceased. In the end, the Court unanimously declined to rule on whether religious beliefs should be taken into account, but there were some key takeaways from the decision, and a framework was made that invites future challenges. This issue could have an important application in estates law, as it examines the standard for when someone is considered legally deceased.
Taquisha McKitty was declared dead in September 2017 following a drug overdose. The medical staff attending to her declared her dead due to “neurological criteria”; however her relatives were granted an injunction to keep her on life support, arguing their Christian faith only considers someone deceased upon cessation of cardiovascular, instead of neurological, activity. They made the argument that according to the freedom of religion in section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they have the right to have their religious views taken into account when it comes to determination of death and removal of life support. The point is now somewhat moot because McKitty has since died from both neurological and cardiovascular criteria; however important groundwork was laid for a potential future challenge.
The Court of Appeal unanimously concluded that it did not have enough information to rule on the matter. To be able to appropriately rule on the Charter issues, the Court held it would need more evidence on the duties and legal obligations of doctors, McKitty’s religious beliefs, and the religious beliefs of her community. The Court did accept the common law definition of death as being cessation of neurological activity, but left this definition open to future challenges based on freedom of religion. While not providing a definitive answer, the Court did craft a legal framework for how this issue should be addressed in future. This framework includes acknowledging that death is not just a medical determination but also an “evaluative” legal concept. The Court also ruled that the Charter still applied to McKitty as a legal “person” even though she was clinically dead, and a lack of neurological activity does not remove her right to challenge the criteria used to declare her death. With this framework in place, it remains very possible that we might see a further challenge within this framework in the near future.
In this case, the current definition of death as cessation of neurological activity was confirmed, but it remains very possible that this could be challenged on freedom of religion grounds. This has very interesting implications for estates law. For example, in families of mixed faiths, some members of the family might consider a relative to be deceased, while other members might consider them to be alive. This would cause a tricky situation when it comes to dividing up the estate. Watch this space!
Thanks for reading,
Ian Hull and Sean Hess