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NC agency: State liable for medical examiner’s body swap error

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
frkelly@charlotteobserver.com

In what officials called an unprecedented decision, the N.C. Industrial Commission has awarded nearly $400,000 to a grieving family because a medical examiner misidentified a corpse and sent it to the wrong funeral home.

Deputy Commissioner Stephen Gheen harshly criticized a local medical examiner in Guilford County and ordered the state to pay damages for emotional and mental distress suffered when a man went to a funeral home expecting to see his sister. Instead, he saw the body of another woman.

The mistake in 2008 prompted a frantic search for the body of Lorraine Young. It ended shortly before a Greensboro funeral home – unaware of the circumstances – was scheduled to cremate the woman’s body.

The medical examiner’s “inexplicable conduct throughout the incidents leading to this civil action constitutes a breach of duty,” Gheen wrote in his 66-page ruling this week.

If upheld, the Industrial Commission’s decision could open the door for other families to hold the state liable for egregious errors during death investigations.

Medical examiners are supposed to determine the cause of suspicious and violent deaths such as shootings, suicides, auto wrecks and drownings. Their work is used to help solve crimes, spot public health trends and settle life insurance payouts.

But at least three other families have filed suits with the commission, alleging that mistakes caused them suffering. The Industrial Commission decides cases where people claim they were wronged by state officials and can authorize payouts up to $1 million.

The state attorney general’s office and a lawyer for the family of Lorraine Young said they were not aware of any previous cases in which North Carolina courts awarded damages to survivors because of errors by medical examiners.

North Carolina law grants broad protections to public officials who make mistakes in the line of duty.

In the past, the attorney general’s office has said the law shields the government from liability because medical examiners work for the public and have no duty to individual families.

Gheen awarded damages to three family members but denied money awards for three others. He declined to make the state pay punitive damages, saying the commission lacked legal authority.

Relatives filed suit against the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees medical examiners, and the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.

Gheen ordered DHHS to pay the families and court costs but cleared the public safety agency. Guilford County Medical Examiner Ronald Key relied on information from a Highway Patrol trooper when he misidentified Young’s body.

In his ruling, Gheen said that the trooper could not have predicted that Key would fail to carry out his duties as medical examiner.

“The state Highway Patrol and the medical examiner had opportunities to get it right, particularly the medical examiner,” said Chet Rabon, a Charlotte attorney representing the Young family. “The citizens have a right to expect them to do the job competently and lawfully.”

Rabon said the family’s lawyers had not decided whether to appeal the decision in an effort to win punitive damages.

The state could also appeal. A spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office said officials are reviewing the decision. A DHHS spokesman said the agency is doing the same.

A tragic accident

An executive with a cruise ship company, Lorraine Young was close with her family and friends.

In September 2008, Young, 40, of Baltimore; and Gina Johnson, 33, and Jessica Gorby, 33, both of Media, Pa., had traveled to Cancun, Mexico, for a vacation. Returning home about 11 p.m. on Sept. 15, with Gorby driving, the minivan careened off Interstate 85 near Greensboro. All three died.

Highway Patrol Trooper Steven Hurley attempted to identify the bodies using the victims’ passports. Authorities later transported the bodies to a local hospital, where Key started his investigation. Key has said he did not try to independently verify the identities.

State guidelines governing suspicious death investigations make the medical examiner responsible for positively identifying dead bodies.

Even though fire disfigured Young’s face, Key did not order an autopsy or other tests to determine the crash victims’ identities.

Medical examiner guidelines say examiners should order an autopsy when dead bodies are badly burned. The guidelines recommend that the deaths of travelers, vacationers or “other strangers from afar should be carefully evaluated before a decision NOT to autopsy is made.”

A brother’s false hope

Key had Johnson’s body sent to the Cliffside Park, N.J., funeral home in a transport box tagged with Young’s name.

When her brother, Edward Young, went to the funeral home to see his sister, he found a box tagged for Lorraine Young.

But it was clearly not his sister inside. He looked more closely. A handbag in the box contained passports for three women. Edward Young looked at the photos. The passport photo confirmed the body was not Lorraine, but was actually her friend Gina Johnson.

Reached by phone Friday, Edward Young said he hadn’t yet read the ruling.

Gheen said the faulty investigation caused mental and emotional suffering for Young’s family, including her brother.

Gheen wrote that expert testimony confirmed Edward Young’s diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, “including flashbacks and vomiting and heart palpitations when confronted with reminders of events in the morgue.”

The discovery of the wrong body at the funeral home, Gheen noted, had led him to falsely believe his sister was still alive. Edward Young called her cellphone. But no one answered.

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027
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