Two state agencies agree to settle suit by family over man's autopsy, cremation

Groups admit no liability in not notifying relatives

March 10, 2000|By Walter F. Roche, Jr. | Walter F. Roche, Jr.,SUN STAFF

Two state agencies have settled a lawsuit filed by the family of a West Baltimore man who was autopsied and cremated without notice to his relatives who were frantically searching for him.

The payment of $17,500 will be made to the siblings and mother of James King, who died on June 20, 1994, while apparently on his way to visit his doctor. The settlement came just before the case was scheduled to go before a jury.

King, then 63 and living on North Carey Street, was found collapsed in the parking lot of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He was taken to the hospital's emergency room, where attempts to revive him failed. He was pronounced dead at 10: 06 p.m.

Court records show that after King died, his body was sent to the medical examiner's office, where an autopsy was performed June 21, 1994. On July 7, his body was sent to the State Anatomy Board on West Baltimore Street, where it remained until it was turned over to a firm for cremation Aug. 3.

Before the body was sent to the medical examiner -- King's family later discovered -- a nurse at the hospital found a birthday card among King's belongings from his sister, Mary Hairston of Baltimore. A hospital worker looked up the sister's number, rang the phone, but got no answer. That was apparently the only effort made to notify the family.

In court filings, officials of both the Anatomy Board and the Medical Examiner acknowledged that they never attempted to contact King's family but said they had no obligation to do so. Their lawyers said that was the job of law enforcement officials.

The hospital, according to court records, informed the police of King's death on the day he died.

Hairston had called police to report her brother missing after he did not return from the June 20 medical appointment. Despite filing the report, Hairston did not hear from city officials until September, when a new police officer was assigned to the case.

Within days, he matched the missing-person report with the unclaimed remains and informed the family of King's death. Hairston said she recovered her brother's ashes from the Anatomy Board and held a memorial service for him Oct. 8, 1994.

King's family sued, saying that they would not have agreed to an autopsy or cremation and that the actions violated his and their Pentecostal Baptist beliefs. They said they were not able to give him a proper burial because of the state's action.

The suit was settled last month before it was to go to trial. Though the original complaint filed in 1997 listed several other defendants, they were either dropped or they had the claims against them dismissed by rulings in Baltimore Circuit Court. Because officers are immune from liability under state law, court records show, the Baltimore City Police Department was dropped as a defendant in the case.

Also dismissed as a defendantwas the city of Baltimore. King's family agreed to drop claims against Johns Hopkins University Bayview Medical Center.

That left two defendants, the state Anatomy Board and the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, both of which were involved in the settlement.

"We did not admit any liability, and we do not admit any liability," said Assistant Attorney General Anthony K. Waters, who represented both state agencies.

Hairston said that she was not at all satisfied but decided to go along with the advice of her attorney. "I'm very depressed by the way it turned out," she said.

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