Pa. Superior Court panel affirms in part, reverses in part Phila. Common Pleas Court dismissal of funeral home suit

By Jon Campisi | May 29, 2012

A state appellate court panel has reversed in part a decision by a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge to dismiss a complaint filed by a city man against a funeral home and others for the alleged mishandling of his father’s dead body.

In an opinion filed May 24, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania reversed in part, affirmed in part and remanded for further proceedings a December 17, 2010 order by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Allan L. Tereshko that simultaneously sustained defense preliminary objections and dismissed with prejudge a complaint that had been filed two months prior by Philadelphia resident Douchan Weiley against Albert Einstein Medical Center, Hancock Funeral Home LTD, Temple University School of Medicine and a John Doe Temple employee.

In his complaint, Weiley alleged that the defendants mishandled and mistreated the body of his father, Elmer Weiley.

The elder Weiley had gone to the hospital’s emergency room in mid-January 2009 to seek treatment for a myocardial infarction. He died on Jan. 23 of that year.

In his complaint, Weiley had claimed that the hospital allowed the funeral home to transfer his father’s body to the medical school without his consent.

Weiley claimed that neither he nor his family members gave consent for the transfer and that the hospital never made a good-faith effort to contact the family before making the transfer.

The lawsuit went on to say that Weiley spent a number of days attempting to locate his father’s body “while at the same time dealing with the grief from his father’s death.”

When Weiley finally located his father’s body at the medical school, he discovered that post-mortem operations had allegedly been performed on the body, including the removal of organs such as the brain.

In his lawsuit, Weiley asserted causes of action such as tortious interference with a dead body, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

A punitive damages claim was also asserted.

The defendants filed preliminary objections in early November 2010, which were sustained by the Philadelphia trial court judge the following month.

The Common Pleas Court judge subsequently sustained the objections and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

In its opinion, the Superior Court panel agreed with the trial court, which found Weiley’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim against the hospital to be legally insufficient because he failed to establish that the hospital owed him a fiduciary duty of care.

The appellate panel also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of all intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against all of the defendants in the case, since Weiley was not present when the allegedly tortious conduct that caused his serious mental distress occurred.

The panel also agreed with the trial court that Weiley failed to state a claim with regard to the tortious interference with a dead body cause of action against the funeral home, writing that there is nothing in the record to indicate that the funeral home had any reason to believe that the transfer of his father’s body was unauthorized or that it had any obligation to seek out Weiley.

“Weiley certainly alleges nothing against Funeral Home that rises to the level of wanton or intentional conduct required for a section 868 claim,” the ruling states.

However, the appellate panel reversed the trial court’s order sustaining the preliminary objections of the hospital and dismissing Weiley’s claim of intentional interference with a dead body against the hospital. The panel remanded for consideration that claim to the trial court as well as the punitive damages claim.

Citing case law, the Superior Court judges also agreed with Weiley in his assertion that the trial court erred by concluding that Weiley failed to assert sufficient facts to support his cause of action against the hospital for interference with a dead body.

“… We conclude that Weiley’s complaint states facts sufficient to withstand a demurrer at this phase of the litigation on the tort of interference with a dead body against the hospital,” the panel wrote.

The opinion was written by Superior Court Judges John T. Bender, Paula Francisco Ott and James J. Fitzgerald, III.


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