In a morbid but extremely popular class action lawsuit filed on June 16, 2023, illegal body parts sales was alleged. The lawsuit against Harvard University contained allegations that its morgue manager was selling body parts from 350-400 donated cadavers. Many donors have now requested their bodies back.
Family members of the deceased had voluntarily donated the cadavers to the prestigious institution to further the medical and scientific study of the human body.
Massachusetts state law recognizes that human beings are entitled to be treated with decency and digital after death, which includes the bodies not being mishandled, viewed, dismembered, or sold by those entrusted with them. The previous morgue manager allegedly violated this law and countless other state, federal, and international laws and treaties. State and federal law prohibits the sale of body parts, often referred to as anatomical donations. These laws have been derived from international laws and conventions that prohibit such conduct, mostly written and agreed to as a result of the Nazi atrocities of World War II.
The Class Action Lawsuit.
The manager allegedly allowed unauthorized third-party members to view the cadavers in the morgue and select which body parts they wanted to purchase. The lawsuit did not state what times and days the store was open. However, once the order was placed, the morgue manager would unlawfully dissect and sell the body parts in person and online. Additionally, the defendant would allegedly ship the body parts to various locations in the United States on demand. Officials believe that this scheme occurred from at least 2018 until March 2023. During that time, the entrepreneurial morgue manager is suspected of having done his dastardly deeds to 350 to 400 separate cadavers.
The lawsuit did not reveal what the purchasers used the body parts for. However, this is expected to come out in discovery.
The class action lawsuit claims negligence and breach of care for the morgue manager and Harvard. According to the suit, the class is defined as: “all individuals whose family members donated their bodies to Harvard and Harvard Medical School for medical research and academic study and whose cadavers were mishandled, dissected, and/or sold by the morgue manager.”
The suit claims that Harvard breached its fiduciary duty of care by allowing the cadavers to be mishandled, dissected, and sold. The negligence claim focuses on the university not taking reasonable steps to ensure that the cadavers were appropriately handled, maintained, and used for their intended purposes. The class claims that Harvard is liable for its employee’s actions because the morgue manager acted within his scope of duty when he unlawfully dissected and sold body parts from the cadavers in the medical school’s onsite morgue.
This argument made in the lawsuit seems somewhat internally inconsistent. It does not seem logical that it could have possibly been within the morgue manager’s scope of duty to act illegally. One cannot have a contract that has for its purpose carrying out an illegal act. Otherwise, I would like to see a copy of that job description (it obviously would not have been written by a Harvard lawyer)!
Massachusetts law imposes a statutory duty to preserve the rights and dignity of a deceased person’s body when a medical school takes custody for scientific and academic purposes, which is another basis for the negligence claims by the class. The plaintiffs are also claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress from both Harvard and the morgue manager since Massachusetts recognizes emotional distress in situations of knowing that the remains of a deceased family member have not been preserved as the family desired.
Harvard will undoubtedly defend itself by arguing that the acts of the errant morgue manager were intentional torts and illegal acts outside of his scope of duties. The doctrine of caveat emptor, by which an employer is held vicariously liable of the negligent acts of its employee, does not apply to intentional torts.
The plaintiffs are requesting a decision from the court stating that both Harvard and the morgue manager are liable for negligence, that the class is awarded damages for the emotional distress, and that the defendants are enjoined from continuing their unlawful practices.
Click here to visit our website and read the complaint in full (but don’t expect to be able to fall asleep after you do!)
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Dowling, Brian. “Harvard Sued Over Morgue Director’s Alleged Body Part Sales.” Law360. (June 16, 2023). Web.
Levenson, Michael. “Harvard Medical School Morgue Manager Sold Body Parts, U.S. Says.” The New York Times. (June 14, 2023). Web.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714. Phone: (407) 331-6620; Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.
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