Grave concern: US medical examiners can keep organs from dead bodies, NY court rules

Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
Medical examiners don't have to return all organs from autopsied bodies to the deceased person's family, New York's Appeals Court ruled on Wednesday. The decision also added that it is not necessary to inform relatives if any body parts are missing.

A verdict allowing city coroners to return the body with missing organs for burial after performing an autopsy was ruled on in New York, AP reported. The appeals court had reversed a lower court's decision, which involved a family who unknowingly buried their son with parts of his body missing.

"There is simply no legal directive that requires a medical examiner to return organs or tissue samples derived from a lawful autopsy and retained by the medical examiner after such an autopsy," NY Daily News quoted Judge Eugene Pigott as saying.

Medical examiners have discretion to tell families whether they've removed and kept any body parts, but will not face any liability if they opt not to warn relatives, the court of appeals said.

The Shipley family from New York City suffered the loss of their 17-year old son Jesse in a 2005 car crash. After an autopsy, the teenager was buried, with his family not knowing the boy's brain had been removed.

Two months after the funeral, Shipley's classmates discovered his brain in a labeled jar during a field trip to the Staten Island morgue. After a court fight to have the brain returned, the family got the organ back and had a second funeral, as a Catholic priest had told them the boy was "unlawfully interred."

A subsequent ruling by a midlevel court granted the family $600,000 in damages, which was a reduced payment from the $1 million awarded to the Shipley family from a jury for emotional distress.

The city contended that "the removal and retention of the brain by the medical examiner was authorized by law," papers read, as quoted by NY Daily News. Justifying the decision to return the body to the family without the organ, attorneys also argued that brains must be hardened in formaldehyde for weeks before they can be dissected.