Civil Procedure

Appeals court OKs late med-mal suit alleging 'dead' woman actually froze to death in hospital morgue

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Reversing a trial judge’s dismissal of a medical malpractice suit on statute of limitations grounds, a California appeals court ruled Wednesday that the family of an 80-year-old woman initially had no reason to suspect she may have frozen to death in a hospital morgue after incorrectly being declared dead.

Survivors of Maria de Jesus Arroyo initially filed a timely suit against White Memorial Medical Center contending that her body had been mishandled after her July 2010 death, the Los Angeles Times (sub. req.) reports. Court filings say morticians received her body face-down with a broken nose and other facial injuries that could not be concealed by makeup.

But plaintiffs’ attorney Scott Schutzman withdrew that complaint and filed a medical malpractice suit in May 2012 after a December 2011 pathologist’s report said Arroyo’s injuries had most likely occurred when she awakened in the morgue and “struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb” before freezing to death there.

A trial judge dismissed the Los Angeles Superior Court med-mal case, accepting the hospital’s argument that the lawsuit had been filed after the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations that began when the family discovered Arroyo’s facial injuries. But the 2nd District Court of Appeal saw the case differently, the newspaper reports.

“Plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the hospital morgue and when the disfiguring injuries occurred,” the appellate court said in its written opinion (PDF).

The Times could not immediately reach a hospital representative for comment.

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