By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law, and Hartley Brooks, Law Clerk, The Health Law Firm
On June 14, 2023, the previous Harvard morgue manager, his wife, and three others were indicted on charges of conspiracy and interstate transport of stolen goods in relation to their scheme of selling body parts from the Harvard medical school morgue.
Following this indictment, two proposed class actions and a third claim have been filed against Harvard alleging it was negligent in its supervision of the morgue. To learn more, read my previous blog.
While grotesque, this is not the only case of its kind. In January 2023, a Colorado funeral home owner was sentenced to the maximum of 20 years in federal prison due to her defrauding relatives of the dead by dissecting and selling body parts from 560 corpses. Another example of this illegal misconduct is that of the mortuary worker in Arkansas who would send body parts to a man in Pennsylvania, this man (not a Florida man) was charged with abuse of a corpse, receiving stolen property, and dealing in proceeds of unlawful acts.
And how could we fail to mention the criminal conduct of a young Dr. Frankenstein, who sent his medical assistant Igor (pronounced Eye-gōre) to purloin the brain of Abbie Normal and used it for his own salacious purposes.
Lawyers involved in similar cases to those above predicted that Harvard may fight the liability charges and pursue a “rogue employee” defense. Harvard may claim that it is not responsible for the criminal actions of an employee acting out of the scope of their employment. It could also argue that it is not responsible for an employee’s action that was not reasonably foreseeable. Due to this, Harvard could file a motion to dismiss. In fact, I, myself, have “predicted” this.
To succeed, if it does not win a dismissal, Harvard will have to show that it took all reasonable steps to ensure that the bodies were being used only for their intended educational use. This is due to Massachusetts recognizing liability for negligence because of lax security. Examples of such reasonable steps could be a background check on a prospective morgue manager before employment, established policies and procedures forbidding such practices, a system of tracking the human remains, or having a direct supervisor for the morgue manager.
The Harvard case differs from other cases mentioned above due to the class actions being pursued against it. Since only some members of the class received the same injuries or damages, it would be hard to argue for a class so large. A legal question about the class’s rights also arises in this instance because the families agreed to transfer the remains as an anatomical gift to a third party (Harvard). Their right to a say in the disposition of the bodies may be limited or end at the point of the transfer. Though, the answer to this question may lay in the contract between Harvard and the families if it articulates a case for the release of the bodies. The contents of such a contract are unknown to the public at this time.
Harvard, show us the contract!
One alarming thought: could there be legal negligence on the part of the lawyers drafting the Harvard donation contract? I’ll be the judge of that one, I’m sure.
If Harvard does fight the liability claims, the plaintiffs could seek to add Harvard officials who oversaw the activities of the morgue, where the manager was said to be the only employee. These individuals may make similar arguments to those mentioned above. All this being said, there have been no updates or responses in the case of Harvard aside from its public statement condemning the manager’s actions as an abhorrent betrayal of trust.
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Sloop, Hope. “Mortuary worker in Arkansas is indicted for selling stolen body parts to tattoo-covered Pennsylvania man she met on Facebook for $11K.” Daily Mail. (30 April 2023). https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12031285/Ex-mortuary-worker-Arkansas-indicted-selling-11K-worth-body-parts-Facebook.html
About the Authors: 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.
Hartley Brooks is a law clerk at The Health Law Firm. She is preparing to attend law school.
Current Open Positions with The Health Law Firm. The Health Law Firm always seeks qualified individuals interested in health law. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. If you are a current member of The Florida Bar or a qualified professional who is interested, please forward a cover letter and resume to: KBrant@TheHealthLawFirm.com or fax them to (407) 331-3030.
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