Disposing of organs after autopsy leads to $2 million verdict

WINTER HAVEN – Wednesday, September 5, 2012 | A jury has returned a verdict of slightly more than $2 million in a lawsuit filed six years ago by a woman who said Winter Haven Hospital disposed of her mother’s organs after an autopsy, preventing her from getting a second opinion on the cause of her mother’s death.

The jury awarded $1 million in compensatory damages against the hospital, pathologist Dr. Phillip C. Gordon and Ridge Pathology Consultants.

It also awarded punitive damages of $1 million against the hospital and punitive damages of $90,000 against Ridge Pathology.

The verdicts came in late Friday night and early Saturday morning, said Lance Holden, a lawyer for Brandy Kay Liles, who filed the lawsuit.

Holden’s firm also represents another family in a similar case accusing the hospital of improperly disposing of organs after an autopsy.

The jury in the Liles case said it found “clear and convincing evidence” punitive damages were warranted against the hospital and Ridge Pathology.

The jury didn’t find that evidence for punitive damages against Gordon.

It said Gordon, the hospital and the pathology consultants had “extreme and outrageous conduct” that was a “legal cause of severe emotional distress” to Liles. Those phrases are in questions on the verdict form, to which the jury answers yes or no, that led to the $1 million in total compensatory damages.

But the jury didn’t find a conspiracy. It said Gordon, an agent or apparent agent of the hospital, was acting within the scope of his authority and-or apparent authority.

Lance Anastasio, president of the hospital, could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

Liles said in her lawsuit that she wanted a second opinion to determine whether her mother, Sharren Diann Sutka, got a morphine overdose at the hospital and other treatment that led to her death on March 27, 2005.

She said she was 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. Her mother hadn’t wanted to be cremated, Holden said, and the hospital had been told that.

“All she had was a shell of a body to put into a cemetery,” Holden said.

Wagner, Vaughan, McLaughlin & Brennan, a Tampa law firm, originally filed the lawsuits against the hospital. The cases moved to Brennan, Holden & Kavouklis P.A. in Winter Haven and Tampa.

The second lawsuit was filed by Carol Creason, whose husband, David, died at Winter Haven Hospital on July 20, 2006. Their children, David Jr. and Kelly, brought the lawsuit along with Carol Creason.

Creason said she disputed the findings of the autopsy done by the hospital’s pathologist, but that she couldn’t seek a second one because the organs were gone.

That lawsuit remains ongoing against the hospital. The Creasons reached a settlement agreement with Dr. Larry D. Botz, a pathologist, and with Ridge Pathology Consultants.