Judging from the reaction at the oral argument this week, the California Supreme Court appears close to giving universities a major win in the mishandling of donated corpses. Evelyn Conroy sued the University of California Regents for losing her husband’s remains under its “willed body program.”
Under the common law, there is a special duty owed in the handling of corpses. This places funeral homes, hospitals and other businesses at greater risk of liability. The question is whether the same rule applies to universities when there is a contract silent on the tracking of the body.
The University of California has been publicly criticized for grossly negligent treatment of corpses and some California universities recently were involved in an illegal body part market run by what they claim were rogue employees.
Conroy’s husband sued the Regents nine years ago after US-Irvine lost her husband’s body. They had both signed contracts with the university in 1996. She says that she was promised that their bodies would be treated with respect, tracked through the system, and eventually cremated with his ashes spread at sea at a ceremony that family members could attend.
However, the agreement that her husband signed stated: In June 1996, Conroy’s husband executed and returned to UCI a donation agreement, which provided: “I here state that it is my wish to donate my body to the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, College of Medicine, University of California, Irvine (UCI), immediately following my death, for teaching purposes, scientific research, or such purposes as the said University or its authorized representative shall in their sole discretion deem advisable. My body, when delivered to UCI, will be unembalmed and in good condition. It is further understood and agreed that final disposition of my body by UCI shall be in accordance with the State Code.”
She sued for breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other claims.
The lower court ruled that the contract did not actually require UC-Irvine to track the body or notify relatives before disposing of it.
For the opinion of the appellate court, click here.
For the full story, click here.