By Daniel Wiessner
ALBANY, N.Y. (Reuters) – The family of a New York City teen who died in a car crash had no right to be notified that his brain was removed during an autopsy, New York state’s top court ruled, overturning a $600,000 jury verdict awarded to his parents.
The Court of Appeals said on Wednesday that when the New York City medical examiner removed Jesse Shipley’s brain for further inspection in 2005, it did not violate his family’s right of sepulcher, an old legal provision that gives families the right to possession of a relative’s remains.
“It is the act of depriving the next of kin of the body, and not the deprivation of organ or tissue samples within the body, that constitutes a violation of the right of sepulcher,” Judge Eugene Pigott wrote for the court.
A spokesman for the City Law Department said his office was pleased with the decision.
Marvin Ben-Aron, the Shipleys’ attorney, said the family was distraught over the ruling and that he hoped the case would spur state lawmakers to consider addressing the issue.
“We in some way have to reconcile the law with our religious, ethical and moral values,” he said.
On a class trip to the medical examiner’s office months after the 17-year-old Shipley died from head injuries, his high school classmates spotted a brain in a jar with his name on it and told his family. His brain was later returned and the family held a second burial.
The Shipleys sued the city in 2006, saying it should have notified them that the teen’s brain and pieces of other organs were removed. They won a $1 million jury verdict that was later lowered to $600,000 by an appeals court in Brooklyn.
A lawyer for the city told the Court of Appeals last month that the case had forced medical examiners to adopt a policy of notifying families when organs are removed, but about 80 percent of those notified have declined to have organs returned.
In a dissent on Wednesday, Judge Jenny Rivera said families deserve notice so they can carry out religious and cultural burial practices.
The case is Shipley v. The City of New York, New York State Court of Appeals No. 96.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Christian Plumb)