Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Page 1


Coroner’s Office Not Liable for Mishandling of Remains—C.A.




County coroners have no duty to preserve remains in order to protect decedents’ relatives from anguish, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.

Div. Two affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Grimes’ dismissal of a suit by relatives of Eugene Perryman, a drive-by shooting victim whose body decomposed after sitting, unembalmed and unrefrigerated, in the county’s custody for one week.

The Perryman family said the county violated Health and Safety Code Sec. 7100, which addresses the right of survivors to control the disposition of remains and their duty to inter them.

No Duty

But Presiding Justice Roger Boren, writing for the Court of Appeal, noted that the statute says nothing about the duties of coroners, and is primarily intended to ensure an orderly disposition of remains.

Nor can a mandatory duty be found on the basis of Sec. 7104, which sets forth the circumstances under which the coroner, if it cannot find a friend or relative willing to claim remains for burial and the deceased left no estate to pay for it, “shall inter the remains in the manner provided for the interment of indigent dead,” Boren said.

The presiding justice explained that the purpose of the statute is to provide for “a condition of last resort” with respect to decedents whose bodies have been committed to the coroner because of the circumstances of their deaths.  The coroner thus is under a duty to search for relatives of the deceased, and to release the remains to them for burial once located, but is not obligated to embalm or refrigerate the remains while searching, Boren said.

Coroner’s Authority

Indeed, if the Legislature were primarily concerned about keeping remains intact, it would not have authorized the coroner to remove body parts “for scientific investigation or training,” the jurist suggested in a footnote.

Coroners’ employees, the presiding justice went on to say, do not have the same obligation that mortuaries and crematories have to maintain remains in a dignified state. Courts have consistently upheld the coroner’s authority to remove body parts during autopsy, and have held that relatives have no cause of action for allowing a body to decompose while in the sun during crime scene investigation, Boren noted.

The jurist rejected, as wrongly decided under California law, a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing parents to sue for the unauthorized removal of their children’s corneas by the coroner.

Newman v. Sathyavaglswaran (9th Cir. 2002) 287 F.3d 786, held that the parents had a federally protected property right with respect to the children’s body parts and thus could sue under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.

Boren wrote:

“To find a section 1983 violation, the federal court is supposed to apply state law, not rewrite it.  The Newman court shrugged off over 100 years of California case authority to write an entirely new rule regarding property rights in dead bodies.  It is, at this point, a federal rule, not a state rule, and we decline to follow it.  {Judge Ferdinand Fernandez’s] dissent in Newman is correct:  California law creates ‘merely a right to possession’ of a corpse for the limited purpose of carrying out burial duties, but ‘decidedly does not confer a property right upon anyone.’ ” 

Attorneys on appeal were Hermez Moreno and Richard T. Copeland of Moreno & Perez for the Perryman family and Laura Inlow of Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith and  Martin Stein and Carolyn Oill of Greines, Martin, Stein, Richland for the county.

The case is Perryman v. County of Los Angeles, 07 S.O.S. 4809.


Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company