Friday, May 25, 2007
C.A.: UCI Body Donation Program Owed No Duty to Donors’ Families to Properly Keep Track of Bodies
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
UC Irvine did not owe a legal duty to the families of Willed Body Program donors to properly track the remains of donated cadavers, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In the first two appellate decisions generated by litigation over the program’s mismanagement, a Div. Three panel held that UCI had no legal duty either to keep track of a donor’s body, or ensure that a donor’s cremated remains had not been commingled with other cremated remains before they were returned to the donor’s family.
The rulings, published Wednesday, stem from lawsuits brought separately by survivors of George Melican and James Conroy, whose bodies were donated to UCI’s program in 1999.
Justices Richard M. Aronson, Richard D. Fybel and William F. Rylaarsdam unanimously affirmed the dismissal of both suits, resulting from rulings by Orange Superior Court Judges William F. McDonald, who originally presided over the cases, and David C. Velasquez, before whom the matters were consolidated in 2001.
In the Melican case, the donor’s son, Joseph Melican, along with the donor’s siblings Robert Melican and Maureen Kennedy, sued the university alleging that cremated remains UCI returned to the family were not those of George Melican.
Melican’s widow, Patricia—who did not sue the university—gifted her husband’s body in July 1999 to the Willed Body Program, which uses donated cadavers for research and teaching purposes. Under the donation agreement, Patricia Melican elected to have UCI dispose of the body “in accordance [with] California State Law” after use by the program.
UCI had Melican’s remains cremated the next month. In September, after UCI publicly admitted that its poor recordkeeping had in some case prevented the return of remains to family members, Joseph Melican called the university inquiring about his father’s remains.
After being told that the donor’s cremated remains were at the WBP laboratory, Joseph Melican arranged for the remains to be delivered to his mother’s home. The family discovered that the remains were not those of George Melican when a forensic dentist they hired to examine them found in them six metal snap buttons—Melican’s body had not been clothed when it was donated or cremated.
Among other legal theories alleged, the plaintiffs claimed UCI owed them the same duties of care that a mortuary or crematory would, as well as a duty of care to avoid causing them emotional distress. Velasquez granted UCI’s summary judgment motion on both negligence claims.
Agreeing, Div. Three concluded UCI never purported to provide funeral-related services to the family. Moreover, the justices noted, the university had no contractual duty to return the remains to the family at all.
Writing for the panel, Aronson said as to the emotional distress claim:
“Even where not mishandled, bodies donated to the WBP are routinely subjected to treatment that could foreseeably cause emotional distress to family members.”
While mishandling of remains by a funeral home, crematory or cemetery would in most cases trigger liability, universities are exempted from such consequences due to the importance of medical education and research, he said.
The justices rejected similar negligence claims alleged in the Conroy case.
There the donor’s widow, Evelyn Conroy, asserted that UCI was liable to her for failing to keep track of her husband’s remains, failing to contact her before disposing of them, and mishandling her husband’s body while using it for purposes other than teaching or scientific research.
James Conroy executed a donation agreement in 1996 after he and his wife learned of the WBP through a newspaper article. Following Conroy’s death in 1999, his wife notified UCI, which sent a representative to pick up the body.
Like Melican’s family members, Conroy later read reports that bodies were missing from the WBP. Upon inquiry, she ultimately learned that her husband’s body had been delivered to the university’s medical school but UCI had no record of what had happened to it.
Conroy’s suit included the allegation that UCI negligently mishandled her husband’s remains. To support her position, she sought to show a pattern and practice of mishandling bodies by the WBP. Citing evidence including the unauthorized use of donated cadavers in a gross anatomy class orchestrated by the WBP director—the course was held on UCI premises without UCI’s permission, and offered to prospective medical school students—Conroy maintained the inference that her husband’s body was mishandled.
But Aronson said:
“The only evidence Conroy submitted directly relating to her husband’s body was that UCI could not account for the body’s specific use and the final disposition.”
The absence of specific allegations that his body was subjected to the described patterns of misconduct was fatal to her negligence claim, he concluded.
In rejecting her emotional distress claim, based on UCI’s alleged failure to keep track of her husband’s remains, Aronson noted:
“The donation agreement included no express promise UCI would track the body or provide Conroy a description of how UCI utilized the body. Nor do the circumstances suggest an implied promise to do so, given the nature of study and scientific research involving cadavers.”
Conroy’s appellate counsel, Claremont attorney Paul M. Mahoney, told the MetNews his client would be filing a petition for review with the Supreme Court, but was glad that the decision was published.
“I obviously disagree with the opinion, but I think it’s very important that the taxpayers be exposed as to what happened to Mrs. Conroy and that they know now what the regents did with regard to Mrs. Conroy.”
Santa Ana lawyer James Rumm, who represented Melican’s family on appeal, commented on his clients’ case:
“Frankly, I’m more than a bit disappointed, because they’re basically ruling that the regents have blanket authority to mess with the lives of people with respect to their loved ones whose bodies have been donated….I think that’s really the wrong message to send. It’s really giving them cover for years of bad conduct that went on at the UCI willed body program.”
The legal team was “thinking very seriously” about appealing, he said
The regents’ counsel on appeal, Louis M. Marlin and Dale A. Anderson of Irvine, could not be reached for comment.
The cases are Melican v. Regents of the University of California, G036583; and Conroy v. Regents of the University of California, 07 S.O.S. 2708.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company