Florida Appeals Court Holds Medical Malpractice Law Does Not Apply Where Organs Were Cremated Following Autopsy

In Winter Haven Hospital, Inc. v. Liles, a 49-year-old Florida woman died after receiving treatment for shortness of breath in an emergency room at a hospital. Following the woman’s death, her daughter signed a form providing the hospital with permission to perform an autopsy. The form stated the institution was authorized to retain certain internal organs for further study. After the woman’s daughter sought a second autopsy, she learned that her mother’s internal organs were incinerated by the hospital.

The decedent’s daughter filed a lawsuit against the hospital, the doctor who performed the autopsy, and the pathology company that disposed of the woman’s organs without the daughter’s express consent. In her complaint, the daughter accused the three of conspiracy and committing the tort of outrage. The hospital responded by filing a motion to dismiss the case because the decedent’s daughter failed to comply with the medical malpractice requirements set forth in Chapter 766 of the Florida Statutes. The court denied the hospital’s motion and allowed the daughter to amend her complaint to also seek punitive damages.

Following a jury trial, the woman’s daughter was awarded $1 million in compensatory damages. Jurors also awarded her $1 million in punitive damages from the hospital and $90,000 in punitive damages from the pathology company. The jury declined to impose punitive damages against the doctor who performed the autopsy.

Next, the trial court denied the hospital’s motion for a directed verdict. The decedent’s daughter then settled her claims with the physician and the pathology company. After that, the trial court entered a verdict against the hospital for $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

The hospital appealed the trial court’s decision to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal. According to the appellate court, the trial court did not commit error when it failed to treat the case as a medical malpractice lawsuit because the plaintiff received no medical care from the defendants. The court added that not every wrongful act committed by a healthcare provider rises to the level of medical malpractice.

The court next addressed the hospital’s argument that the trial court incorrectly instructed the jury that disposal of the woman’s internal organs constituted a cremation within the meaning of Florida Statutes Section 470.0255. According to the Second District, the trial court committed harmful error when it applied the law to the case at hand because the record demonstrated the incineration of the woman’s organs did not constitute the cremation of human remains under the law.

After examining the hospital’s remaining arguments, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision and ordered a new trial.

If you were hurt or lost a treasured loved one as a result of medical malpractice, you should discuss your situation with an experienced lawyer. Please call the skilled attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. today at (305) 448-8585 or contact us through our website.

Additional Resources:

Winter Haven Hospital, Inc. v. Liles, Fla: Dist. Court of Appeals, 2nd Dist. 2014

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