Thursday, April 8, 2010
C.A. Tosses Negligence Suit Against UCLA Over Cadaver Abuse
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The family of a woman whose remains were allegedly mishandled by the UCLA Willed Body Program has no negligence claim against the university, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
In a 2-1 decision, the court held that Ruth Waters, who died in 2001, gave the university “irrevocable” control over her remains, so any understanding between the school and Waters’ family did not create a legally enforceable duty.
Justice Patti Kitching wrote for Div. Three, joined by Justice Richard Aldrich. Justice Walter Croskey dissented, arguing that the terms of the donation should not preclude an action for emotional distress suffered by family members as a result of any misrepresentation made to them.
The panel granted a writ of mandate, directing that summary judgment be granted in favor of the school.
Waters, who according to testimony became interested in the use of cadavers for medical research while training to be a nurse, entered into a donation agreement with UCLA in 1970. The agreement said her remains would be used “teaching purposes, scientific research, or such purposes as the said University or its authorized representative shall in their sole discretion deem advisable.”
Waters’ children filed one of more than a dozen lawsuits that were brought in the wake of the 2004 revelations that hundreds of bodies and body parts donated to the Willed Body Program had been sold for profit.
The program was shut down by the university, and Henry Reid, who was its director, and Ernest Nelson—a former mortuary worker who allegedly carved up the bodies and delivered them to hospitals, researchers, and other buyers—were indicted on charges that included grand theft and tax evasion.
Reid entered a negotiated plea of guilty to one count of conspiracy in 2008, after the university’s summary judgment motion was denied by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl, and was sentenced to more than four years in prison. Nelson was convicted of multiple felonies following a jury trial last year and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Special Relationship Alleged
In a master amended complaint filed by other plaintiffs and adopted by the Waters family, it was alleged that UCLA owed a duty to the plaintiffs to handle the remains of their family members with care, that a special relationship existed between the plaintiffs and the university because the plaintiffs were required to notify UCLA upon the donor’s death and because the university expressly told the families that the remains would eventually be cremated and buried in a cemetery garden.
In moving for summary judgment, the university argued that it owed no duty to plaintiffs, that it is immune from liability for common law claims under Government Code Sec. 815, and that the plaintiffs suffered no compensable losses. In denying the motion, Kuhl found that Sec. 815 did not apply, that there was sufficient evidence of severe emotional distress for a jury to award damages, and that UCLA owed the plaintiffs a duty to abide by its stated restrictions on how anatomical gifts would be used.
Kitching, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the university is entitled to summary judgment under Conroy v. Regents of University of California (2009) 45 Cal.4th 1244, which was decided after Kuhl denied the motion. The high court held in that case that a widow had no claim against the university over the loss of her husband’s remains by UC Irvine’s Willed Body Program absent evidence the body was used in a manner other than that authorized in the donation agreement.
Kitching noted that the donation agreement signed by Waters was nearly identical to that cited in Conroy, and that the misrepresentations alleged to have been made to family members, and the alleged breaches of duty, were similar in the two cases.
Modification Not Permitted
As in the high court case, Kitching added, the donation agreement and the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act govern. Neither the agreement nor the statute, she said, permit the modification of the agreement through extrinsic representations.
Under the statute as it read at the time of the agreement, the justice elaborated, the donee was not required to return the remains once it determined that they would no longer be used for research purposes, and family members had no right to specify how the remains would be disposed of.
“Consequently oral, internet, or other representations not found in the document of gift created no duty owed by the Regents to Chiquita, Tami, and Victor Waters regarding disposition of Ruth Waters’s remains,” Kitching wrote. “Enforcing such duties would violate [Health and Safety Code] section 7100.1, subdivision (a), prohibiting alteration, change, or amendment of a decedent’s written disposition of his or her remains.”
Croskey argued in dissent that Conroy does not preclude actions based on representations outside the donor agreement.
“Conroy never stated that such representations could not create a duty of care as a matter of law, but instead found other reasons to affirm the summary judgment,” he wrote. “ I believe that the majority’s characterization of Conroy as holding that representations made outside of the donation agreement created no duty of care as a matter of law is simply not supported by anything that the Supreme Court actually said or held in Conroy.”
The jurist went on to argue that the university “assumed a duty to plaintiff’s close relatives by making representations concerning the use and disposal of the decedent’s donated body,” and that the imposition of such a duty is supported by the foreseeability of severe emotional distress to close relatives when such representations are not honored, the moral blameworthiness of the alleged conduct, the effect that tort liability would have on deterring such conduct in the future, the relatively light burden that the duty would impose, and the lack of any indication that imposing such a duty would impair medical research activities.
Attorneys on appeal were Louis M. Marlin, Alan S. Lazar and Lynn P. Whitlock of Marlin & Saltzman for the university, and Raymond P. Boucher and Michael Eyerly of Kiesel Boucher Larson, along with Mick M. Arias and Arnold C. Wang of Arias, Ozzello & Gignac for the plaintiffs.
The case is Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court (Waters), B210693.
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