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Tortious Interference With Next of Kin’s Right to Possess Decedent’s Body


A man died in his home at the age of 39. Two days later, the man’s body was transported to the county morgue. The coroner was unable to determine the cause of the man’s death.

 

Later that same day, the man’s body was transferred to a medical center for a full autopsy. Upon arrival at the medical center, the man’s body was received by employees of a private security company. The private security company had contracted with the medical center to provide certain services at the medical center, including the receiving, tracking, and releasing of bodies processed by the medical center’s morgue. Employees of the security company placed the man’s body in a Ziegler case, a closed steel case used to store severely decomposed remains. They did not place a visible identification tag on the man’s body, nor did they affix an identification label to the Ziegler case containing the man’s body. They also erroneously recorded in the morgue’s logbook that the body contained in the Ziegler case was that of a different man.

 

Two days later, representatives from a funeral home arrived at the medical center’s morgue to collect the different man’s body. Relying solely on the erroneous logbook entry, and without conducting any visual inspection of the body, the security company’s employees provided the funeral home with the man’s body, rather than with the body they were supposed to collect. Before the error could be discovered, the funeral home employees left the medical center with the man’s body and it was cremated. As a result, no autopsy was ever performed on the man’s body, and no cause of death was ever determined.

 

After settling the claims against the medical center and funeral home, the man’s mother, acting both in an individual capacity and as the independent administrator of the man’s estate, sued the security company for tortious interference with the mother’s right to possess the man’s body. Under Illinois law, a decedent’s next of kin has a right of possession of a decedent’s remains in order to appropriately dispose of them. The complaint alleged that the security company and its employees had a duty not to interfere with the mother’s right to possess and make appropriate disposition of the man’s body. The complaint alleged that the security company and its employees breached this duty by, among other things, failing to follow industry standards and the medical center’s policies governing the identification and processing of dead bodies, failing to maintain an accurate log of the identity and location of bodies in the medical center’s morgue, relying solely on an inaccurate logbook when releasing the body to the funeral home, releasing to the funeral home a body that lacked an identification tag, releasing to the funeral home a body that did not match the description of the body being claimed, and releasing to the funeral home the wrong body. The complaint further alleged that, as a proximate result of these acts and omissions, the man’s mother experienced severe emotional distress, mental suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, and financial losses.

 

The Circuit Court of Sangamon County granted the security company’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The trial court explained that dismissal was warranted because the mother failed to plead sufficient facts to support the allegation that the security company owed a duty to the woman and there was no set of facts by which the mother could demonstrate such a duty.

 

The Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District, reversed. The appellate court explained that, in order to state a claim for tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse, a plaintiff need only allege that the defendant acted with ordinary negligence, which the mother’s complaint adequately set forth.

 

The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed. The court held that a plaintiff bringing a cause of action for tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse is not required to allege facts showing that such interference resulted from the defendant’s willful and wanton misconduct and the complaint stated a claim for which relief may be granted.

 

A plaintiff bringing a cause of action for tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse is not required to allege facts showing that the interference resulted from the defendant’s willful and wanton misconduct. Recovery in such cases is permissible upon a showing of ordinary negligence. Damages for the resulting emotional distress are recoverable in cases involving negligent interference with the right to possess a corpse.

 

The complaint stated a claim for which relief may be granted. The complaint properly alleged a legally cognizable duty because the man’s mother, as next of kin, had a right to possess and make appropriate disposition of the man’s remains and the man’s body was delivered to the medical center’s morgue, where the security company’s employees were responsible for receiving it, ensuring that an accurate identity tag was placed visibly upon it, correctly logging its identity and location in the morgue, and ensuring that it was released only to the correct funeral home. The complaint alleged that, in this capacity, the security company and its employees had a duty not to interfere with the man’s mother’s right to possess the man’s remains. The complaint properly alleged a breach of that duty by the security company’s employees by listing six breaches: (1) failing to follow the medical center’s policies governing the identification and processing of dead bodies in the morgue, (2) failing to keep an accurate log that correctly recorded the identity and location of bodies in the medical center’s morgue, (3) violating the medical center’s and industry standards by releasing the wrong body to representatives of a funeral home, (4) violating the medical center’s and industry standards by releasing a misidentified body to representatives of a funeral home, (5) releasing a body to representatives of a funeral home when the security company’s employees knew or should have known that the body did not match the description of the body to be transported, and (6) violating the medical center’s and industry standards by relying entirely on an erroneous logbook entry to confirm the identity of a body in the morgue. The complaint properly alleged these breaches caused injuries because the complaint alleged that, as a proximate result of the security company’s acts and omissions, the mother experienced severe emotional distress, mental suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, and financial losses, all of which were the foreseeable consequence of the security company’s negligence. The court concluded that the complaint stated a claim for tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse and the trial court erred in granting the security company’s motion to dismiss.

 

The Supreme Court of Illinois affirmed the appellate court’s reversal of the trial court’s grant of the security company’s motion to dismiss.

 

See: Cochran v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., 2017 WL 4173348 (Ill., September 21, 2017) (not designated for publication).

 

See also Medical Law Perspectives Report: The Body as Proof: Litigation Risks Involving Autopsies

 

 

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