Families sue GW over body donor program mismanagement

Three families are suing GW for “gross mismanagement” of their family members’ remains that were donated to the medical school for study, claiming that the University then attempted to conceal the incident.

The family members — Eileen Kostaris, Alex Naar and Mary Louise Powell — filed the class action suit in D.C. Superior Court last week on behalf of themselves and other families who donated their relatives’ remains to the cadaver program. The families are suing for general negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent misrepresentation, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention — asking for each family to receive $10 million in damages.

The ten million dollars will cover loss of wages while they collected evidence that could have potentially helped to identify the bodies and to cover emotional anguish, which “is so severe as to manifest itself as physical injury as well,” according to the complaint.

The complaint demands that the court order GW to identify and return bodies to families and “establish lasting policies and procedures to ensure this never happens again.”

Earlier this year, the University revealed that the School of Medicine and Health Sciences had mismanaged more than 50 bodies in the body donor program and couldn’t identify the remains to send back to families, but the lawsuit alleges that wrongly identified remains had been improperly returned to families for years. The medical school shut down the program, and the University announced at the time that the person who oversaw the program no longer works at GW.

The affected families are filing the suit as a class action lawsuit that would affect three groups. The first group consists of about 50 people whose family members’ remains have not been returned and who the University has not positively identified. The second group is made up of family members whose loved ones have not yet been positively identified and returned but will, while the third group contains between 210 and 280 people whose family members’ remains have been returned but could have been misidentified and wrongly returned.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith said in an email that the University will address the lawsuit in an “appropriate legal forum,” and declined to comment further on the suit.

“There has been no intent on the part of the University to mislead affected families,” she said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers, Cary Hansel and Annie Hirsch, did not return requests for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that the University had been aware of the issue since September 2015 but did not notify families until late January. During this time, GW allegedly continued to cremate bodies, knowing that they were not identified, according to the complaint.

The bodies were also cremated in Maryland, where state law bans the cremation of unidentified bodies and requires that anyone seeking cremation of a body provide the crematorium with identifying information for each body. GW refused to provide the “cremation authorization” forms required in Maryland, according to the complaint.

As the bodies were cremated, SMHS staff did not collect tissue samples to identify DNA, according to the complaint.

“Both the rushed and unlawful cremation of unidentified bodies, and the saving of genetic material, were done without first obtaining consent or even notifying the affected families,” according to the complaint.

Some family members were asked to provide photographs or identifying information about the bodies so they could be identified, but the bodies had already been cremated, according to the complaint.

The last person to serve as the “anatomical curator” in the program was a licensed funeral director tasked with tracking the bodies’ identities. Each body was assigned an identification number and a tag with the number, according to the lawsuit. But as far back as seven years ago, the tags were not kept with the bodies, which led to some being misidentified, according to the complaint.

“Had swift measures been taken when this problem first arose, all of the bodies missing their tags could have been fully identified using dental and other medical reports, DNA testing, identification by relatives in some instances and other techniques,” according to the complaint. “In short this was an inconvenient and embarrassing problem with a ready solution.”

The body of Jean Louise Riley, who died at the age of 92 in May 2015, was one of the misidentified bodies. Her granddaughter, Kostaris, is a plaintiff. Kostaris completed a document showing that she was releasing her grandmother’s body to the University for 18 to 24 months, and that the body would then be cremated. She requested for Riley’s remains to be returned to her after cremation, according to the complaint.

In February, Kostaris received a phone call from Christina Puchalski, the director of the GW Institute for Spirituality and Health, telling Kostaris that there had been a “mix-up” of some ashes, and some had not been labeled at all, according to the complaint.

Puchalski told Kostaris that the University would eventually contact her with more information, but she never heard from any officials, according to the complaint.

Ruth Kurle, the mother of Naar, another plaintiff, died in October 2013. Naar filled out the same form as Kostaris and requested that his mother’s remains be returned after her body was cremated, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly followed up with the University multiple times to determine the status of her body.

In August 2015, Naar was told that the remains would be available in January 2016. But in January, he heard that the remains could not be identified. He gave a description of his mother’s surgeries to the University and was told that information “might be useful,” but the bodies had already been cremated and no longer identifiable, according to the complaint.

The University allegedly said the remains could be located because an inventory in September 2015 showed that there was a female cadaver without a larynx, fitting Kurle’s description. But that body had been lent to the University in 2015, while Kurle’s remains were donated in 2013, according to the complaint.

“This further ‘mix-up,’ even now, demonstrates either the continued incompetence of the University or another intentional effort to cover its misconduct,” according to the complaint.

The suit also alleges that Kurle’s remains had either been given to the wrong family or had been interred, after Naar had requested the remains.

Powell’s mother, Fidelia Ridgeway, died in January 2015. In January 2016, Powell was informed that her mother’s body was being used and would continue to be in the program for another year. But three days later, she was told that the ashes were ready to be picked up, according to the document.

Powell collected the remains in February 2016, but now alleges that those ashes are not her mother’s.

“Having rendered positive identification very likely impossible, the University then distributed the remains to Ms. Powell without ever alerting her to any concerns,” according to the complaint. “The University left Ms. Powell to learn about its negligence by reading the newspaper in the days and weeks after she received what she initially believed to be her mother’s remains.”

James Levinson contributed reporting.

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