New York Medical Examiners Not Required To Return All Organs, Court Rules

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A New York state court has ruled that medical examiners can keep organs from autopsied bodies without notifying family members.

The case involves 17-year-old Jesse Shipley who was killed in a car accident in 2005 on Staten Island. Two months after his funeral, during a school trip to the medical examiner’s office, Jesse’s classmates saw a brain in a jar with his name on it. Though his parents agreed to an autopsy in which the brain was removed, they were unaware the body released by the medical examiner, and eventually buried, did not possess this organ.

After his brain was returned to them, the Shipleys held a second funeral and sued the city for emotional distress, arguing they should have been notified that their son’s brain had been removed. The Shipleys were initially awarded $1 million in damages, but the amount was reduced to $600,000. The city challenged the decision at the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, and won last Wednesday.

The ruling overturned the $600,000 jury verdict awarded to the Shipleys and dismissed the family’s claim. The case debated whether the medical examiner violated the family’s ‘right of sepulcher,’ where families have the right to claim a loved one’s body for burial.

"It is the act of depriving the next of kin of the body, and not the deprivation of organ or tissue samples within the body, that constitutes a violation of the right of sepulcher," Judge Eugene Pigott wrote for the court, Reuters reports.

The family's attorney said the Shipleys are “distraught” over the ruling and hope the case will encourage lawmakers to look into the issue.

Two dissenters, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judge Jenny Rivera, argued against the ruling, saying families do deserve notice. They wrote, The Guardian reports: “Perhaps the majority’s ruling will result in greater awareness of the right of sepulcher. Even so, for those who indeed know enough to seek the return of the deceased’s organs, the majority provides no ‘solace and comfort’ and little assurance that their request will be honored by the medical examiner.”

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