Family attorney: Medical examiners have duty to ID bodies properly
Posted May 1, 2013
Hillsborough, N.C. — Paramedics and law enforcement authorities often identify the bodies of people killed in wrecks in North Carolina, and medical examiners usually rely on those identifications, the state's longtime chief medical examiner said Wednesday.
Dr. John Butts, who retired in 2010, testified in a state Industrial Commission hearing into a lawsuit against the state Department of Health and Human Services and what is now known as the Department of Public Safety. The Industrial Commission handles all tort claims against the state.
Lorraine Young's family is suing after a medical examiner in Guilford County shipped the wrong body to a New Jersey mortuary for her funeral five years ago. The family discovered the mix-up in time to prevent Young's body from being cremated.
Young and two friends were killed in a Sept. 15, 2008, car wreck on Interstate 85 while returning to New Jersey from a trip to Cancun, Mexico. All three women were burned, but first responders identified each body before sending them to the morgue.
Attorney Michael Maggiano said establishing the identity should be paramount in any death investigation, especially when there are multiple victims.
"You have a three-victim car crash (and) no ID on any of the bodies. Isn't it the duty of the ME to investigate who each one is for a positive ID?" Maggiano asked.
Butts replied that identification can be done by various means, such as checking tattoos or jewelry. Although he said he would have double-checked the identities provided by paramedics, the local medical examiner was satisfied that everything was accurate and there was no need for further work.
Stephen Gheen, deputy commissioner of the Industrial Commission, denied a defense motion to the dismiss the case, saying he would issue a ruling in a few months.
Gheen did note that evidence provided by Young's family show the state's system of investigating deaths has some issues that need review.
Young's brother said the family agrees that the system needs to change.
"We were prepared and realized death happens and car accidents happen, but all the errors and omissions that occurred completely took my sister's death and turned it upside down," Anthony Young said after the hearing.