N.C. Medical Examiners

Mistake lands living man in morgue

Larry Green was zipped into a body bag, and then the medical examiner had him taken to the morgue. But it was a huge mistake.

Green was not dead.

The potentially fatal mix-up began on a cold night in January 2005 when Green was hit by a car in Franklin County north of Raleigh. Emergency responders found him lying face down in a pool of blood, a gaping wound in his head.

A paramedic checked for vital signs and said he found none. Emergency responders then covered him with a white sheet and called the medical examiner.

When Dr. J.B. Perdue opened Green’s jacket and shirt, eight witnesses said they saw Green’s chest and abdomen move, according to court documents.

“Doc, I believe he’s breathing,” a paramedic said. “ Is he breathing?”

“That’s only air escaping the body,” Perdue replied.

At Perdue’s direction, Green was placed in a cooler at the jail. There, Perdue took a blood sample. Again, a paramedic noticed movement: Green’s right eyelid twitched.

“It was a muscle spasm,” Perdue told him, according to documents, “like a frog leg jumping in a frying pan.”

About an hour later, Perdue pulled Green’s body from the morgue refrigeration drawer and examined it a third time at the request of an N.C. Highway Patrol trooper who needed more details for his report.

Perdue watched in alarm as Green’s abdomen moved. He was alive.

Relatives contend that Green, who is 39, suffered permanent brain damage caused by the medical examiner’s error. More than two hours elapsed before he was taken to a hospital.

Today Green lives in a Wilson nursing home unable to walk or talk. He is nourished through a feeding tube.

His family has spent years battling in court. They reached a $1 million settlement with Franklin County, Franklin County EMS and two paramedics in 2009. But the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled that Perdue is immune from liability as an individual because he was an officer of the state carrying out his duties.

Green’s family is now suing the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state medical examiner’s office. The suit alleges the medical examiner caused Green painful and permanent injuries.

A retired surgeon, Perdue had worked as a medical examiner for more than 30 years when he attended to Green. He said he was wrongly made a scapegoat. “In my opinion, the EMS messed up,” he said. “People don’t understand what a medical examiner does.”

State guidelines for medical examiners say “it is not the ME’s job to pronounce people dead.” Dr. John Butts, then chief medical examiner, said Perdue did everything required of him.

Perdue said he feels sorry for Green, but said he should not be blamed for his disabilities.

“It looks bad. I know it does,” Perdue said. “But I don’t think it changed his overall outcome. I don’t think the delay caused any further damage.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.