The remains of thousands of unidentified victims are stored in coroners' and medical examiners' offices across the US. Forensic medical experts work hard to identify these bodies using DNA, fingerprints and other tools. It's not an exact science, and because these medical experts are human, identifications aren't always accurate.
Mistakes Sometimes Happen
To the shock and horror of loved ones, medical experts sometimes make mistakes when identifying bodies. For example, a family identified a victim of the 2011 tornado in Joslin, Missouri as their son. They didn't discover until the funeral that they had the wrong body. Apparently, the county coroner's office didn't make a positive ID before releasing the body.
In 2010, Arizona parents were told by state police that their daughter had been killed in a car accident while traveling with her friend. Six days later, they were told it was their daughter's friend who had been killed; the daughter was in critical condition at an area hospital.
The mix up was discovered when the medical examiner looked at the friend's dental records.
Your Options When There's a Mistake
For the most part, medical experts are very careful when identifying bodies. Sometimes it's not fast enough for family members, like for some in Joslin who complained the process was taking too long. In times of grief and loss, the types of mistakes seen in Joslin and Arizona shouldn't happen.
1. File a Lawsuit. Loved ones may have legal grounds to file a lawsuit. The parents of the Arizona woman who survived the crash sued the state's department of public safety. They claim the police officers didn't follow state rules requiring positive identification of bodies before notifying the victims' next-of-kin.
Negligence, in simple terms, means someone didn't do something they were supposed to, or did it poorly, and you were harmed by it. This most likely is what the Arizona parents' lawsuit is based on. They're suing for $250,000, probably for emotional distress or similar damages caused by being misinformed of their daughter's death.
The Joslin parents could have legal grounds for a similar negligence lawsuit.
Lawsuits like this aren't about the money. They are, as explained by the Arizona parents, meant to help make sure no one else has to suffer from the same kinds of mistakes again.
2. Fix the Problem. Another option for parents and loved ones in these situations is to urge their state and local lawmakers to increase safeguards in the body identification rules and laws. That's what the Arizona parents did. As of late 2011, Arizona state lawmakers are working on a new law (PDF) that will give parents the right to talk to medical examiners if there's any question about the identification of a body.
Body identification, like other sciences, isn't perfect, but it has come a long way and is getting better everyday. Despite best efforts and good intentions, mistakes are sometimes made. Talking to a lawyer when it happens may help loved ones deal with the grief and help make sure it doesn't happen again.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have legal grounds to sue over misidentification of a family member's body?
- Do I have to give a DNA sample if a coroner or medical examiner asks for it?
- Can a coroner or medical examiner perform an autopsy without my permission after I identify a body as a family member?