North Carolina Ruling Voids Government Immunity for Medical Examiner

May 5, 2014

A North Carolina agency’s ruling that a family should be paid nearly $400,000 for their anguish after a medical examiner misidentified a body and sent it to the wrong funeral home could open the door to similar lawsuits.

The actions of Guilford County Medical Examiner Ronald Key have no explanation and violate the public’s trust, deputy commissioner Stephen Gheen wrote in the decision by the state Industrial Commission.

If Gheen’s decision is upheld, it could open the door to other families to hold medical examiners responsible for egregious mistakes, The Charlotte Observer reported.

In the past, medical examiners have been included under a law that shields government employees from liability.

The state Attorney General’s Office said it is reviewing whether to appeal Gheen’s decision.

Key’s “inexplicable conduct throughout the incidents leading to this civil action constitutes a breach of duty,” Gheen wrote in the Industrial Commission’s decision.

The ruling came after the family of a woman killed in a 2008 wreck on Interstate 85 sued after the wrong body was sent to a funeral home.

Lorraine Young and two friends died in the wreck as they returned home from a cruise. Key didn’t perform autopsies on the victims, instead relying on passport photos, even though a fire disfigured at least one of the victim’s faces.

He misidentified two of the bodies, and the mistake wasn’t discovered until Young’s brother went to the funeral home and realized the body he was viewing was not his sister. A frantic search started, and his sister’s body was discovered at another funeral home just before it was cremated.

Finding out his sister wasn’t at the funeral home gave her brother a brief, but intense hope that she was still alive, according to legal papers. His lawyer said finding out she was still dead has caused flashbacks, vomiting and heart problems.