Monday, March 31, 2008
Court Rules No Contractual Duty to Return Remains in UCI Case
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal on Friday rejected a man’s breach of contract claim against UC Irvine’s willed body program over its loss of his mother’s remains.
Div. Three, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed judgments in favor of the Regents of the University of California in an action by Butch Vanderpool and his wife over the school’s failure to return Vanderpool’s mother’s remains because the couple failed to describe a purported arrangement with UCI for the return of the remains with sufficient specificity.
The court similarly affirmed a judgment rejecting Vanderpool’s claims for negligence and misrepresentation against the school because he could not show that the school owed him a duty to track his mother’s remains, or that it made any representations to him or his mother as to how the remains would eventually be disposed.
Vanderpool’s mother, Isol Cartheuser, executed and returned a donation agreement to UCI in March of 1996 stating her wish to donate her body to the school’s Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in its College of Medicine after her death “for “teaching purposes, scientific research, or such purposes as the said University or its authorized representative shall in their sole discretion deem advisable.”
The agreement provided that Cartheuser’s cadaver would be “unembalmed and in good condition,” and that final disposition of the body would be “in accordance with the State Code.”
Cartheuser died later that year at UCI Medical Center, and the Vanderpools notified center personnel about Cartheuser’s donation.
After receiving the body, the willed body program sent the Vanderpools a letter expressing condolence and thanking them for their family’s participation in the program.
Approximately two years later, the Vanderpools contacted UCI to learn when it would return Cartheuser’s remains. Both were told that someone would get back to them with this information, but neither received a return telephone call.
A few months later, news stories emerged about problems with the program, including its failure to keep track of donated bodies and unauthorized sale of body parts.
In April 2000, UCI sent the Vanderpools a letter confirming receipt of Cartheuser’s body, but informing them that the willed body program was unable to obtain information on the disposition of her “cremated ashes.” The letter noted that no request had been made for the return of Cartheuser’s remains, and explained that UCI would not contact them again unless it received additional information.
The Vanderpools and family members of other body donors then sued the Regents, alleging breach of contract, negligence, negligent misrepresentation and fraud, intentional deceit.
The cases were consolidated for discovery and trial management purposes after the trial court sustained the Regents’ demurrer to the Vanderpools’ breach of contract cause of action.
The trial court then granted summary judgment to the Regents on the remaining causes of action.
On appeal, the Vanderpools argued that the trial court had erred in sustaining the demurrer to the breach of contract cause of action and in granting summary judgment on the remaining counts, but the Court of Appeal upheld both decisions.
Writing for the court, Justice Richard M. Aronson opined that the Vanderpools’ allegations that Cartheuser and UCI hade “made arrangements” for the return of her body when they entered into the donation agreement were “subject to the demurrer for uncertainty” because it was unclear whether any “arrangement” for return of the remains were part of the original donation agreement or constituted a separate agreement, and, if the latter, with whom Cartheuser made any such arrangements or what they actually were.
Aronson similarly concluded that the trial court’s grant of summary judgment as to the allegation of negligence was proper because the donation agreement “unmistakably granted final dispositional rights to UCI, not family members,” and provided the school with “latitude in the method of disposition.”
He wrote that promises by the willed body program to contact the Vanderpools when the program was finished with the remains did not raise a duty to actually return the remains or to account for their final disposition, despite evidence that the program had mishandled the remains of other donated bodies, and that the program could not be held to the standard of handling remains imposed on mortuary or crematory service providers.
Turning to the Vanderpools’ negligent misrepresentation and fraud/intentional deceit claims, Aronson pointed out that the plaintiffs had not actually shown any representations by the program that were false, even though Cartheuser had written in her journal one month before executing the donation agreement that she wanted her remains to be put in a crypt with her mother’s remains.
“That Cartheuser donated her body to the [program] just over a month after she expressed a desire to have her ashes placed in her mother’s crypt,” he wrote, “could have been the result of a UCI misrepresentation, but it could as easily have reflected her change of mind or her confusion about the donation agreement through no fault of UCI…
“Cartheuser’s journal entry simply does not support an inference that UCI misrepresented Cartheuser’s rights to control the disposition of her remains.”
Justices William F. Rylaarsdam and Richard D. Fybel joined Aronson in his opinion.
The case is Vanderpool v. Regents of the University of California, G037988.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company