Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Defendant's Motion for Sanctions Regarding Inability To Complete Autopsy Denied by Court

In the case of Estate of Eddy v. Saber Healthcare Group, LLC, No. 2022-CV-1553 (C.P. Dec. 15, 2023 Nealon, J.), the court addressed a motion by medical malpractice Defendant for spoliation sanctions. In this case, the decedent’s son filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a nursing care facility alleging that his mother fell and suffered blunt forced trauma to her head due to the facilities negligence, which negligence result in the decedent’s death nine (9) days after that injury. The Plaintiff also alleged that the facility misrepresented that the decedent died from “end-stage dementia” rather than blunt force trauma.

The son maintained that the facility never advised him of his mother’s fall down event and/or head injury prior to her death and that, upon viewing his mother’s head wound and bandaging at the funeral home, which did not correlate with the cause of death explanation provided by the facility, the son contacted an attorney who recommended that the son have an autopsy completed, which was done.

The forensic pathologist who completed the autopsy authored a report identifying blunt force trauma of the head, dehydration, and malnutrition as pathological diagnoses. The decedent was then cremated shortly thereafter.

During the course of this litigation, certain Defendants filed the Motion for Spoliation Sanctions seeking to have the case dismissed with prejudice or, in the alternative, to preclude any autopsy evidence and to have an adverse inference instruction issued based upon the son’s alleged deliberate spoliation of evidence by way of cremating his mother’s body which thereby deprived the facility of its own opportunity to conduct its own autopsy.

After reviewing the record before him, Judge Nealon noted that a litigant has a duty to preserve relevant evidence if that party knows that litigation is pending or likely and it is foreseeable that spoliation of that evidence will prejudice the opposing party.

Here, the court found that the wrongful death claim against the facility did not become likely until the forensic pathologist authored the autopsy report in March of 2021, almost two (2) months after the mother’s body had been cremated.

The court noted that no evidence was offered during the evidentiary hearing on the motion which suggested that the son or his attorney knew of the forensic pathologist’s autopsy conclusions when the mother’s body was cremated.

It was additionally noted that credible evidence was presented at the hearing which established that the facility had opportunities to examine and inspect the mother’s body and head injuries, or arguably to request an autopsy, before it released the decedent’s body the funeral home after the facility had certified that the decedent had died from “end-stage dementia.”

Judge Nealon otherwise noted that there also remained other relative evidence available to the defendant facility to dispute or otherwise challenge the son’s claim that his mother instead died from blunt force trauma to the head, dehydration, and malnutrition.

Therefore, after consideration of the alleged degree of fault on the part of the son and his attorney in connection with the spoliation of the decedent’s corpse, the extent of any alleged resulting prejudice to the defendant facility, and the facility’s alleged ability to use other existing evidence to remedy any claimed disadvantage, the Motion for Spoliation Sanctions was denied.

Judge Nealon additionally ruled that the facility would be permitted to present evidence at trial pertaining to the spoliation of the evidence at issue so that the jury may assess that evidence whatever weight the jury deem it was entitled to receive.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

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