Medical examiner doesn’t have to return organs for burial, court rules

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(Family Photo)

Classmate’s stumbled across the brain of Jesse Shipley, which the medical examiner had preserved for testing — unbeknownst to his family.  (Family Photo)

ALBANY, New York – A New York appeals court ruled that medical examiners not only don’t have to return organs to family members after performing an autopsy, they don’t even have to notify them that their dead relative is missing an organ.

The decision follows the highly-publicized story of a Staten Island family who discovered the brain of their dead teenage son had been preserved without them knowing it.

Jesse Shipley was 17 when he died in a 2005 car crash, and his family held a funeral and buried what they thought was his intact body.  His father, Andre Shipley, had consented to an autopsy and asked the medical examiner to make his boy look as “presentable as possible” for the funeral, according to court documents.

Two months later, however, Shipley’s high school class was on a field trip to the morgue when the students got a morbid surprise — the brain of their dead classmate was floating in a labeled jar.  Some of the students told Shipley’s sister, Shannon, who told her parents.

In that case, the Shipleys managed to get the brain back and held a second funeral before filing a lawsuit.  They won $1 million for emotional distress after arguing that the city had interfered with their common-law “right of sepulcher.”

The  city argued that, not only had Shipley’s father given consent to the autopsy, but that it’s routine to retain organs for months to perform further testing.  A midlevel court ended up knocking down the payout to $600,000.

The New York State Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the medical examiner is protected and doesn’t have to notify next of kin about organ removal if a dissection of a body is warranted.  That would include anyone who has died “from criminal violence, by accident, by suicide, suddenly when in apparent health, when unattended by a physician, in a correctional facility or in any suspicious or unusual manner.”


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