In this case the court considers whether a hospital’s failure to notify the next of kin can be the basis for a personal injury lawsuit for emotional distress. Under New York law a decedent’s next-of-kin has the right to “immediate” possession of the decedent’s body. This means that a hospital, for example, must make reasonable efforts to notify the next of kin. If someone interferes with the next of kin’s right, then he or she would be entitled to damages from that person or entity that interfered because of the mental suffering caused by the improper handling of the decedent’s remains.
In early January in 2004, the New York City Fire Department EMS found Coto, the brother of the plaintiff. He was rushed to defendant Mary Immaculate Hospital. When he arrived, he was unable to give hospital staff any information about his next of kin because he was unresponsive. The next day Coto died. Hospital staff went through Coto’s possessions but did not find anything other than his clothing and a watch. They were not immediately able to determine his name or any other information. Because the hospital was not able to determine the identity of Coto and was unable to notify his next of kin, a nurse from the hospital notified the police department to determine and contact the next of kin.
Meanwhile, following protocol, because Coto died within a day of arriving at the hospital, the hospital notified the medical examiner’s office. Coto was transferred to the medical examiner’s office, and the hospital advised the medical examiner that it was not able to determine Coto’s identify or notify his next of kin.
The plaintiff was not notified about Coto’s death for 2 months. She filed a lawsuit against the hospital alleging that the defendant hospital failed to make reasonable efforts to notify her of Coto’s death. The defendant hospital filed a motion for summary judgment dismissing the case. The hospital argued that it made appropriate efforts to located the decedent’s next of kin and that the plaintiff did not suffer emotional harm from the delay of notification. The defendant argues that it only had possession of the body for one day and that it turned the body over to the medical examiner’s offices. The medical examiner accepted the body understanding that the defendant hospital had not been able to identify the decedent. Furthermore, the hospital points out that hospital was not responsible for burying the decedent, the medical examiner’s office was. In other words, the defendant hospital’s position is that the medical examiner was responsible for the delay in notifying the next kin and causing the plaintiff any emotional distress that she may have suffered.
The plaintiff’s response to the defendant’s position is to point out that there is evidence that the hospital did have some information about the decedent, including his name, address, date of birth, and social security number. With that information, the plaintiff contends, the hospital could have contacted information to get a telephone number, mailed a letter to the decedent’s address, or visited the decedent’s residence to try to find out more information. Furthermore, there is evidence that the decedent was not transferred to the medical examiner’s officer until 3 days after he arrived at the hospital, not 1 day later as the hospital had stated.
Based on the information submitted by the plaintiff and the defendant, the court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgement. The court agreed with the plaintiff that the defendant essentially did not make an effort to notify the decedent’s next of kin during the 3 days that the decedent was at the hospital.