Published Decisions: Arnold v. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, et al.
Court/case #: Lawrence Superior Court, No. 05-01044
Article Published in the September 18, 2006 Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.
Woman's burned body wrongly identified at morgue
Victim thought to be deceased was still alive
On Dec. 22, 2003, Ann Goyette was in a house with Susan Anderson when a fire occurred. The women were pulled from the house and transported to Addison Gilbert Hospital where one woman was pronounced dead. The other woman was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital.
The woman pronounced dead was labeled as Susan Anderson, while the other woman was labeled Ann Goyette. The defendant Office of the Chief Medical Examiner claimed jurisdiction over the deceased woman and transported the body to its facility in Boston.
On Dec. 23, 2003, an autopsy was performed on the body. When the medical examiner completed the autopsy, he completed a form that was attached to the outside of the autopsy file which indicated that the funeral-home service was to obtain identification of the body.
At the instruction of Philip Anderson, Susan Anderson's ex-husband, the defendant funeral home picked up the body from the medical examiner on Dec. 26, 2003. The funeral-home service picked up directly from the medical examiner a Medical Examiner Certificate authorizing the cremation of Susan Alexander. The body was taken from the OCME along with the Medical Examiner's Certificate and delivered to the Linnehan Funeral Home.
On Dec. 27, 2003, the Linnehan Funeral Home delivered the body to Proprietors of Linwood Cemetery, Inc. for cremation. The body was cremated 10 minutes after it arrived at the crematorium. At no time did any family member view the body. Both the funeral-home service and Linwood failed to identify the error on the Medical Examiners Certificate.
The plaintiffs went to MGH to visit the person believed to be their daughter. At the time, the patient was in a coma inside an oxygen tent with tubes coming out of her mouth.
On Dec. 28, 2003, Susan Anderson awoke at MGH and informed the nursing staff of her correct identity. The staff informed the OCME that the person at MGH, believed to be Ann Goyette, was Susan Anderson, and that the body from the fire may have been that of Ann Goyette.
The plaintiffs arrived at the hospital and realized that the patient was not their daughter, and that their daughter had died in the fire. The decedent's brother later confirmed the identity of Ann Goyette through the use of photographs.
At trial, the plaintiffs contended that the OCME released the body of Ann Goyette to someone who did not have proper legal authority to receive it. Further, the OCME failed to take appropriate steps to identify the body of Ann Goyette as required by statute and the Policies and Procedures Manual of the OCME.
The plaintiffs also claimed that the OCME failed to take adequate steps to insure that it received from the funeral-home service a completed Statement of Identification prior to the cremation of Ann Goyette's body.
The plaintiffs contended that the funeral-home service did not have proper legal authority to receive the body of Ann Goyette.
The funeral-home service admitted that it did not review the paperwork it received from the OCME until after the body was cremated, thereby precluding any chance of rectifying any errors.
The OCME contended that it handed the funeral-home service a statement of identification, something that it denied. All defendants contended that the police department was the one that caused the original misidentification.
The plaintiffs also contended that the defendant Proprietors of Linwood Cemetery failed to take appropriate steps to insure that the paperwork was in order prior to cremation. Further, the plaintiffs contended that Linwood failed to follow its statutory duty as well as its own cremation policies and procedures to insure that the paperwork was in order prior to cremation.
The plaintiffs sought damages for emotional distress. Both plaintiffs testified as to loss of sleep and depression. Additionally, one of the plaintiffs suffered from loss of appetite.
At the time of trial, the plaintiffs' demand was $300,000. The defendants never made an offer.
The jury deliberated for four-and-a-half hours and rendered a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs as to the funeral-home service and the crematorium in the amount of $300,000. The jury's verdict indicated that the OCME was not the proximate cause of the plaintiffs' harm.
Type of action: Negligence & tort
Injuries alleged: Emotional distress, depression, loss of sleep and loss of appetite
Name of case: Arnold v. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, et al.
Court/case #: Lawrence Superior Court, No. 05-01044
Tried before judge or jury: Jury
Name of judge: Patrick J. Riley
Amount of verdict: $300,000
Date: June 8, 2006
Demand: Initially $400,000; reduced to $300,000 shortly after filing suit
Highest offer: $0 before trial; $10,000 from OCME on day three of trial; $25,000 from Grondin Funeral Service, Inc. after day one of trial; $0 from Proprietors of Linwood Cemetery, Inc.
Attorneys: David S. Smith, Cianciulli & Ouellette, Beverly; Patricia S. Johnstone, Schlichte, Johnstone, Henry, Gloucester (for the plaintiff)