Court Upholds Mistreatment, Reckless Murder Conviction

Elder Law Answers case summary.The Supreme Court of the State of Kansas upholds the decision of a lower court in a case concerning the legal duty of a spouse to provide medical and subsistent care or summon medical care for the other spouse. In State of Kansas v. Carol Sue Burris (Kan. No. 123,650, March 15, 2024).

Carol Sue Burris was found guilty of mistreatment of a dependent adult and of second-degree reckless murder of her husband, Michael Burris. Mr. Burris had dementia and other health issues. It was determined that Mrs. Burris, as Mr. Burris’ sole caregiver, neglected his care and prevented others from helping with his care. Mrs. Burris’ actions and inactions led to Mr. Burris’ death from pneumonia, with severe emaciation as a significant underlying factor.

In Mrs. Burris’s appeal, she argued that her conviction for reckless but unintentional second-degree murder should be overturned because she believed that it was based solely on a failure to provide care, i.e., on actions she did not take rather than on actions she did take. Her argument was based on the idea that she had no duty to provide care for her husband because she received no direction to provide care.

In addition to the overarching argument regarding the duty of care, Mrs. Burris took issue with comments made by the prosecutor during the trial. Mrs. Burris claimed that on three occasions the prosecutor made improper and inflammatory comments.

The Supreme Court of the State of Kansas upheld the lower court’s decision, which averred that Mrs. Burris was legally obligated to provide her husband with the medical and subsistent care he needed and was unable to provide himself. The lower court’s decision was based on Mrs. Burris’ marital relationship with the deceased in question, her voluntary assumption of her husband’s care, and her role as his sole caregiver under K.S.A. 2022 Supp. 21-5417. The prosecutor’s remarks during the trial were found to be within the realm of allowable rhetoric and not in error. Mrs. Burris’ convictions were upheld.

In conclusion, the court maintains that a person can be held criminally liable for a failure to act if that person owes a legal duty of care, which can arise out of either a legislative enactment or common law. In common law, a legal duty of care is imposed on persons who have willingly entered into a special relationship with each other, such as marriage. This same legal duty of care can be imposed on a person who voluntarily assumes the care of another person and who has prevented others from providing care for the person in need of such care. K.S.A. 2022 Supp. 21-5417 imposes a legal duty of care on the primary caregivers of dependent adults.

Read the full opinion.