State v Marlene Corrigan (1998) H&FLR 2014-63
Contra Costa County Superior Court (California)
27 February 1998
Coram: Arnason J.
Catchwords: California – child abuse – obesity – heart failure – bed sores – sentence.
Facts: The defendant was the mother of Christina Corrigan, who died of congestive heart failure in November 1996 aged 13 years. At the time of her death, the deceased weighed 680 pounds (309 kilograms) (2). The evidence indicated that she was suffering from bedsores, that excrement was lodged in the folds of her skin, and that she had spent her final months immobile on a dirty sheet in front of a television in the family home. She had not attended school since Grade 6. She had been seen by medical practitioners 90 times up to age 9 (at which time she weighed 237 pounds / 108 kilograms) but had received little or no medical care since that time.
The defendant was charged with felony child abuse. She contended that she had been overwhelmed with personal responsibilities and posited that the deceased may have suffered from Prader-Willi Syndrome. She denied being aware of her daughter’s bedsores.
Held: Convicting the defendant of misdemeanour child abuse, that –
1. Conviction of a misdemeanour rather than a felony was appropriate because it was her passive rather than active misconduct that contributed to the deceased’s congestive heart failure (3).
2. The maximum penalty for this offence was six months imprisonment; the court however imposed a sentence of 240 hours community service, three years probation (to include counselling and being barred from working in child care) and a $100.00 fine.
No written judgment is available. This report has been prepared based on accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 10 January 1998, the Los Angeles Times of 2 March 1998 and the San Francisco Chronicle of 28 February 1998.
This case suggests that a person’s duty to take active steps to prevent a family member coming to harm (4) will take priority over the absence of a general duty to rescue a person intent on injuring themselves (5)
(1) Since appointed to the Contra Costa County Superior Court.
(2) The weight may be considered significant: a weight of this magnitude, even in an adult, is noted to pose very considerable problems for both mobility and medical care: Dr Edward Thompson, ‘Supersize Me’, Pulse, 22 November 2013. Medical care is likely to require long-term hospitalization and may cause irreparable injury: Dr Karen Hitchcock, ‘Fat City’, 87 The Monthly __ (2013). An indication of the potential for significant discomfort associated with pronounced skin folds is offered by the post “Day in the Life: Shower, Chafing, & Jock Itch” on the blog Living ~400lbs … and believe me I am still alive.
(3) Cf R v Stone and Dobinson  2 All ER 341 (Eng. Ct. of App.), in which the defendants were convicted of manslaughter for failing to take adequate steps to prevent a mentally unbalanced relation who lived with them from starving and mistreating herself to death.
(4) R v Russell  VLR 59 at 67-68 (per Cussen ACJ) and semble 76-77 (per Mann J); but see 83 (McArthur J, dissenting) (Sup. Ct. of Vic.)
(5) Stuart v Kirkland-Veenstra (2009) 254 ALR 432 at 457 (per Gummow, Hayne and Heydon JJ) and semble 463 (per Crennan and Kiefel JJ) (High Ct. of Aust.)