The family of deceased 87-year-old (name withheld for privacy) expected their local chapel (a funeral home) to treat the body of their patriarch with respect and deference. When they arrived for the viewing, however, they found that it was not his body in the casket, but another person entirely and wearing the deceased’s burial suit. Upon further investigation, it seems that his body was badly disfigured; then a stranger was placed in his coffin. The family have accused the chapel of negligence & emotional and mental distress.
In California, criminal negligence is defined as having some kind of intentional disregard for what a reasonable person would consider harmful or risky to another person (physically or mentally). Most often, mens rea (literally “guilty mind,” otherwise known as “criminal intent”) must be proven in order to convict a person of having acted negligently in a criminal sense. There are three elements to this particular crime: 1) the behavior exhibited must be reckless enough to cause great risk or harm to another person; 2) there must be clear evidence that this recklessness is due to a disregard for human life or for other serious consequences; and 3) the person who is accused of negligence must have known that great harm could have been the result of their actions.
If we turn, however, to the California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI 1620), we find that “The California Supreme Court has allowed plaintiffs to bring negligent infliction of emotional distress actions as ‘direct victims’ in only three types of factual situations.” The first of these listed is “the negligent mishandling of corpses” (CACI 1620). The case that set this precedent was Christensen v. Superior Court (1991), in which families sued the Pasadena Crematorium of Altadena for having mishandled the bodies of their loved ones. Cited in the case are such negligent actions as cremating 10-15 different bodies in the same kiln and illegally harvesting various organs from bodies that were to be cremated, all pointing to a disrespect for human remains.
The family’s case differs very little from that of Christensen v. Superior Court in the sense that family members experienced an emotional shock upon finding the wrong body in what should have been his coffin. The chapel may find itself liable for having caused extreme emotional distress in a negligent manner, both criminally and civilly.
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