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Disposing of organs after autopsy leads to $2 million verdict

The daughter of a woman who died more than six years ago has just been awarded over $2 million because her mother’s organs were not retained after the autopsy. The daughter contends this precluded her from getting a second opinion on the cause of death.

Brandy Kay Liles filed suit against Winter Haven Hospital, the pathologist and his pathology practice.

Ms. Liles was apparently concerned her mother may have died of a morphine overdose while at Winter Haven.

An article from 2006 about this case says,

Liles said hospital records don’t reflect all the drugs her mother was given and that times of when she received morphine appeared to have been changed. She insisted the hospital do an autopsy, Liles said in the suit.

It also sounds as though Ms. Liles was alleging a conspiracy or cover-up between the hospital and the pathologist, because the current article says, “But the jury didn’t find a conspiracy.”

The fact her mother’s organs were incinerated meant she (Liles) was “unable to grant her mother’s last wish to be buried and not cremated.” Liles was also upset “about not being able to bury her mother with her organs and that the funeral home had to stuff the body with sheets to keep body cavities from collapsing.”

Additionally, her lawyer stated, “All she had was a shell of a body to put into a cemetery”.

A second family also has a lawsuit pending against the hospital for the same exact thing; that case is still pending.

Commentary

I have looked for this case on PACER, but I can find no record of it (perhaps it is too soon after the decision), so I don’t know any more than is presented here.

The article does not mention whether Dr. Gordon sent appropriate material for toxicology (blood, liver, bile, gastric contents, etc), but I would hope he did.

Every pathologist with whom I have ever worked has always kept a “save bucket” of representative pieces of every organ for years and years and years. This is both for regulatory reasons and so one can go back and look at the case again at some point in the future if necessary.

I don’t know if Dr. Gordon did so, but if he had, those representative pieces could have been used to formulate a second opinion. It may not have allowed optimal toxicology analysis, but someone could certainly take additional sections.

From a practical standpoint, I’m not quite sure what Ms. Liles was expecting. Seeing as an unrestricted autopsy (that she evidently requested, by the way) requires the removal of all organs, being left with just a shell of the body is the standard outcome. In addition, it is not clear whether she made it known she wanted her mother’s organs saved.

Even if the hospital had sent the organs with her body, I’m not sure the funeral home would have left them in the bag with her body up until her burial, as the “shell” would have been embalmed, but not the organs in the bag. That could make for a rather unpleasant wake from an olfactory standpoint. It is more likely the funeral home would have incinerated the organs at some point as well.

After an autopsy, some reconstruction is almost always necessary, including the use of “stuffing” to return more natural contours to the body.

I have worked or trained at hospitals that do things both ways. Some dispose of the organs and others send the organs to the funeral home in a bag within the body cavity. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

Which means this is likely a consent form issue. If the consent form for the autopsy said her organs would be disposed of following the case, then all likely would have been well. But I guess it didn’t say that, given this outcome.

I personally would not have touched this autopsy with a ten foot pole, mostly because this case requires a certified forensic pathologist and toxicologist, in my opinion.

In addition, this is a no-win situation for the pathologist. If an overdose is found, hospital administration and involved colleagues are not going to be happy. If an overdose is not found, accusations of a cover up/conspiracy may not be far behind.

I realize I have the luxury of hindsight, but turfing this case to the closest ME would have been the path I chose.

Note-There is a Brandy Kay Liles who has been arrested numerous times in Polk County, Florida for multiple offenses including bouncing a check, larceny, resisting arrest and child abuse. I have no idea whether the two Brandy Kay Liles are the same person, but Winter Haven Hospital is in Polk County Florida. (The link is to the arrest for child abuse).