The state's highest court today faulted the state medical examiner's office for causing the parents of a man killed in a plane crash needless emotional pain, but said medical examiners cannot be sued if they make mistakes in autopsy reports.
The Supreme Judicial Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Marilyn and Joseph LeBlanc, whose son, Joseph Jr., was killed in a 2001 plane crash in Danvers. An autopsy report given to the LeBlancs contained a mistake that led the family to fear their son's remains had been commingled with that of the plane's pilot.
The family spent $20,000 to exhume their son's remains, and perform DNA tests – which showed their son was the only occupant of the grave. The family later learned that the state Office of Chief Medical Examiner, or OCME, staff had realized they made a mistake and corrected the error – but never notified the parents until after they had completed the exhumation.
"Without question, the OCME should have told the LeBlancs that the autopsy report was in error … as soon as it recognized the error, so that the LeBlancs could have the peace of mind of knowing that the body they had buried was truly their son, and not the pilot,'' Justice Ralph Gants wrote for the unanimous court.
"The failure to do so here reflected either bureaucratic bungling or callousness that needlessly compounded a tragic loss,'' he added.
Despite concluding the LeBlancs were harmed, the SJC said powerful public policy reasons warrant protecting medical examiners from being sued for conclusions they reach while performing autopsies.
The OCME establishes the cause of death in violent crimes and conducts medical investigations of anyone who dies without an obvious cause like a fatal illness. Gants wrote that when the medical examiner's office is brought into investigate a death "the rights of the surviving spouse and next of kin are subordinated to the 'paramount' public interest in obtaining the truth as to the manner and cause of death.''
He added, "if the surviving spouse or next of kin could file a complaint against the OCME concerning the content of an autopsy report, the paramount public interest in obtaining the truth would be compromised by the fear of liability, especially if the truth were to reveal a cause of death that the family is unwilling or unable to accept,'' he said.
Gants said the rule needs to be applied to the LeBlancs where the issue was accuracy of one word in a written report, not the medical findings. Allowing the lawsuit to proceed could compromise the independence of the OCME, he concluded.
"Even if liability were limited to the correction of errors in the autopsy report, the OCME's obligation to discover and report the truth would still be compromised, because family members may demand correction of what they would characterize as errors but what the OCME may see as facts that are difficult for the decedent's family to accept, but that are nonetheless true,'' he said.
He said the Legislature has chosen to shield the medical examiner's office from lawsuits to assure their goal is to serve the public interest, not protect themselves from civil lawsuits.
"When investigative information, such as the cause of death, is critically important to effective law enforcement and the pursuit of justice but painful to hear or difficult to believe for a decedent's grieving family, it is reasonable for the Legislature to conclude that the accuracy and integrity of such investigative information requires that the OCME be shielded from liability arising from claims brought by family members challenging the content of the autopsy report,'' he wrote.
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