On September 5th, an appeals court upheld a $2 million fraud judgment against Christus St. Catherine Hospital and lifted a stay that prevented a widow from retrieving her husband's heart, which was retained during an autopsy.
Jerry Carswell, 61, was admitted to Christus St. Catherine Hospital, located in Katy, Texas. He arrived at the hospital to receive treatment for his kidney stones. He was scheduled to be released from the hospital on the day that he died in January 2004. While it is known that he was given narcotic painkillers, his exact cause of death has never been determined. His widow, Linda Carswell, filed a lawsuit against the hospital after learning that the pathologist who performed the autopsy kept Jerry's heart, which has been kept in a hospital morgue refrigerator.
After her husband's death, Linda asked hospital employees to request a complete autopsy from the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office. However, a hospital employee informed her that the medical examiner's office refused to take the case because officials had been told that Jerry died of renal failure. Linda was informed that a complete autopsy could be performed at St. Joseph Medical Center. She was told that this autopsy would be "just like" the one performed by the medical examiner's office. What they failed to tell her, however, was that the St. Joseph was owned by Christus.
Medical Negligence Concerns
The three-judge panel found that the hospital employees fraudulently misrepresented their intentions to Linda after she specified that she wanted an independent autopsy. Hospital autopsies are rare and differ from forensic autopsies. Significantly, the autopsy did not include any toxicology tests, which may have determined whether painkillers contributed to Jerry's death. Had the medical examiner's office been informed that the circumstances behind Jerry's death were suspicious, it would have been legally required to perform an autopsy and toxicology test. Because Linda relied on the hospital's assertion that the medical examiner's office declined to perform an autopsy, she did not seek a second opinion.
Attorneys for the hospital argued that the heart could not be returned to Linda because of the ongoing litigation. However, the jury in the August 2010 trial rejected Linda's claim that Jerry's death was caused by medical negligence. Because Linda did not appeal this verdict, the appeals court found that the hospital had no reason to maintain Jerry's heart as evidence.
Even though the jury did not find that Jerry's death was caused by medical negligence, the jurors did find that Christus fraudulently obtained Linda's permission for an incomplete autopsy. Christus has indicated its intent to appeal this issue of fraud. However, the hospital has said that it would not take further legal action related to the heart issue. Erin Lunceford, an attorney for St. Joseph, said that Jerry's heart could be returned unless Christus intervenes.
If Linda is able to retrieve her husband's heart, she will not be able to use it to prove wrongful death because its handling and storage cannot be fully traced. At this point, its value to Linda is emotional. Once recovered, she intends to place it in a small box and bury it alongside Jerry's remains.