LOS ANGELES (CN) - A hospital must face claims that it froze a woman alive in cold storage after prematurely declaring her dead, a California appeals court ruled.
Maria de Jesus Arroyo was thought to have died of a heart attack at White Memorial Hospital outside Los Angeles after an ambulance brought the 80-year-old woman there in 2010. When her family saw her body days later at the funeral, however, they discovered Arroyo had disfiguring facial injuries that the mortician could not hide including a broken nose, bruises and lacerations.
Since mortuary workers said they found Arroyo face down on the floor of the morgue, the family originally suspected that hospital staff had mishandled Arroyo's body. They blamed the mutilation of Arroyo's body on hospital negligence in a 2011 lawsuit but voluntarily dismissed the action just before trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Months later, they filed a new suit there against the hospital and Dr. John Plosay, the attending physician who treated Arroyo.
Pursuing a new theory, the family alleged that Plosay had mistakenly declared Arroyo dead and - after the family viewed her body and said their goodbyes - hospital staff froze her alive in the morgue freezer.
The extreme cold eventually awakened Arroyo who ten "damaged her face and turned herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb," an expert retained by the family testified.
Accused of medical negligence, wrongful death and mutilation action, the hospital countered that a one-year statute of limitations barred all three claims. Although the family had argued a delayed discovery of the true reason for Arroyo's injuries and death, the hospital convinced the trial court that the clock began ticking when the mortuary staff told the family about the woman's disfigurement shortly after her death in 2010.
A three-judge panel with 2nd Appellate District reversed dismissal Tuesday, finding that knowing about the disfiguring injuries and discovering how they occurred are two different things for the purpose of applying the statute of limitations.
"The injury that plaintiffs reasonably suspected had occurred on or about July 26, 2010 consisted of the mishandling of the decedent's body after death (the wrongdoing), which caused disfigurement to the decedent's face (causation), and plaintiffs' resultant emotional distress upon learning of those post-mortem injuries (the harm)," Judge Thomas Willhite Jr. wrote for the panel (parentheses in original). "By contrast, the medical negligence and wrongful death claims are based on a wholly different injury raised by diametrically opposed facts. The wrongdoing element of both relates not to mishandling the decedent's remains, but to prematurely declaring her dead and having her placed in the morgue while still alive. The causation element of both relates not to causing post-mortem disfigurement of the decedent's face, but to causing her to freeze to death in the morgue. The harm element of both has nothing to do with emotional distress from knowing of or observing post-mortem injuries."
Willhite also rejected the hospital's contention that Arroyo's family simply put forth new theories of liability under the delayed-discovery rule - rather than distinct types of wrongdoing - to avoid the ticking clock.
"The difference is not in the theories of liability, but in the essential suspected facts," he wrote. "In short, suspected wrongdoing in handling the decedent's remains after death is not the same as suspected wrongdoing in causing her death."
The panel upheld the trial court's dismissal of the family's negligence per se claim for the mutilation, however, finding that the family knew of Arroyo's injuries well before the statute of limitations ran out - regardless of what actually took place inside the morgue.