Tuesday, April 7, 2009
State Supreme Court Rejects Suit Against UCI for Losing Cadaver
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A widow cannot sue the University of California Regents over the UC Irvine’s willed body program’s loss of her late husband’s remains, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Holding Evelyn Conroy could not show a breach of a duty of care absent evidence the particular body was used in a manner other than that authorized in the donation agreement, the justices unanimously affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment.
Defense counsel Louis B. Marlin of Marlin & Saltzman told the MetNews the decision resolved all remaining litigation over the program, which arose in 1999 when the university fired former program director Christopher S. Brown amidst accusations he sold body parts for profit.
Paul M. Mahoney of Mahoney & Soll represented Conroy, and said the case “reflects a growing trend in the courts to allow the government to lie to its citizens without accountability or recourse.”
He added, however, that he was glad the opinion was on record so that “people in the state now know that before they donate a body for research, they should get a lawyer and negotiate the terms carefully.”
Conroy brought suit for negligence, fraud and negligent misrepresentation after she read media coverage in September 1999 describing misconduct at the willed body program.
Her late husband, James Conroy, executed an agreement to donate his body to the program in 1996, and the school took possession of the body when Conroy died in January 1999.
However, when Evelyn Conroy telephoned the university to inquire about her husband’s remains, she was informed that Brown had failed to keep proper records, and that the school did not know what happened to her husband’s body after it was picked up.
Citing allegations that Brown used donated bodies to operate a private, for-profit gross anatomy class for prospective medical school students, and that he sold seven cervical spines to a private company, Evelyn Conroy argued UCI was liable for failing to keep track of her husband’s remains.
She also accused the school of failing to contact her before disposing of the remains, and for mishandling them while using them for purposes other than teaching or scientific research.
But the Orange Superior Court granted summary judgment for the university, and Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that UCI had no legal duty to keep track of a donor’s body or to ensure that a donor’s cremated remains had not been commingled with other cremated remains before being returned to a donor’s family.
Conroy appealed, but Justice Marvin R. Baxter agreed with the lower courts, writing that the record did not support Conroy’s claim that the program mishandled her husband’s body as set forth in the complaint.
He noted, as the Court of Appeal had pointed out, that James Conroy’s remains could not have been used in the private gross anatomy classes because they occurred prior to his death. Baxter also recognized that the fresh nature of the seven cervical spines at the time of their sale meant none of them could have belonged to Conroy.
The justice further concluded that the university had no duty to return remains or retain records regarding disposition where the donation agreement did not so specify, and that state law imposes no duty on state universities to safeguard the sensibilities of surviving family members when conducting teaching and research.
He also wrote that summary judgment was proper on Evelyn Conroy’s fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims because she had failed to identify any false representations, and could similarly not show any reliance on the part of her late husband.
Marlin said the university was “quite pleased” with the decision, which he said “recognizes that when someone donates remains for science and research, the donor’s wishes are paramount and the university, by honoring the donor’s wishes, acted appropriately.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Ming W. Chin, Carlos R. Moreno and Carol A. Corrigan joined Baxter in his opinion.
The case is Conroy v. The Regents of the University of California, 09 S.O.S. 1977.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company