Family Allowed to Pursue Hospital on Claim that It Placed Living Woman in Morgue Freezer

800px-MorgueA family whose elderly relative may have died horrifically inside a Southern California hospital received a reprieve in their legal action against the hospital. A California appellate court concluded that the family did not wait too long to accuse the hospital of wrongful death for erroneously placing the woman in a morgue freezer while still alive. Lawyers for the family convinced the court that the family could not have learned about the error until a medical expert made the discovery many months later.

In July 2010, an ambulance transported Maria de Jesus Arroyo to White Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. When the family’s mortuary picked up the 80-year-old’s body, they found Arroyo’s face severely damaged and disfigured. This damages was not present when the family identified the body shortly after death.

The family sued the hospital for mishandling the body. As part of this case, the family hired a medical expert who reached a startling conclusion late in 2011: Arroyo was alive when the facial injuries occurred, suffering the harm as she fought to escape the morgue freezer, where she eventually froze to death. The family modified their case in 2012 to add claims for medical negligence and wrongful death, accusing doctors at the hospital of erroneously declaring the woman dead, which set into motion all of the subsequent events. The hospital asked the court to throw out the medical negligence and wrongful death claims, arguing the family waited too long to assert them. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claims.

The California Court of Appeal reversed that ruling and revived the family’s case. The appeals court decided that, although one year was correct time period for filing medical negligence and wrongful death claims, the trial court was wrong to accept the hospital’s contention that the time period began as soon as the woman died. At that time, the family reasonably believed, based on what the doctors told them, that Arroyo died from a heart attack. Even a reasonable investigation by the family might not have led them to discover that Arroyo was frozen alive and died from exposure, not a heart attack, based on the information they had in 2010.

The hospital unsuccessfully argued that the family had the necessary knowledge at the time of death to pursue all their claims. The original complaint accused the hospital of causing them emotional distress related to Arroyo’s badly disfigured face resulting from morgue workers’ negligently mishandling the woman’s dead body. This was completely different from the subsequent claims that the hospital harmed the woman by causing her to freeze to death in the morgue as a result of a negligent misdiagnosis of death.

Medical care providers have both an ethical and legal obligation to tend to their patients using an appropriate degree of care. Certainly, having a loved one freeze to death in a morgue because doctors wrongfully declared her dead raises issues about the level of care provided to that patient. But success in court requires not just persuasive facts, but compliance with legal procedural rules like statutes of limitations, as well. That’s why, if you or a loved one suffered harm because your doctor failed to provide you with the necessary level of care, you should act quickly to see if you can recover for your damages. For advice about your injuries and your case, consult the Oakland injury attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our injury attorneys can help you analyze your case and give you the skilled representation you need. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

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Photo credit: P.J.L. Laurens at Wikimedia Commons.