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HILLSBOROUGH — The North Carolina Industrial Commission ruled Wednesday that an unprecedented lawsuit against the state for misidentifying dead bodies can proceed.
Deputy Commissioner Stephen Gheen denied motions from state attorneys to dismiss a suit alleging that authorities sent the wrong corpse to a mourning New Jersey family in 2008.
Gheen said he will rule later this year on whether the government should be held liable for investigative errors by medical examiners.
The case is one of four current lawsuits that represent the first attempts by survivors to seek damages when mistakes by North Carolina medical examiners cause the family additional pain.
Medical examiners are supposed to determine the cause of suspicious and violent deaths. Their work is used to help solve crimes, identify public health threats and determine life insurance payoffs.
This week’s hearing focused on the state’s investigation into the 2008 death of Lorraine Young.
Young’s family says shoddy work by the medical examiner assigned to investigate her death in Guilford County has left them questioning whether they buried the right body at her closed-casket funeral.
When Young and two friends died in a car wreck near Greensboro, Highway Patrol Trooper Steven Hurley misidentified two of the bodies.
State guidelines say that medical examiners are responsible for positively identifying the deceased.
But Guilford Medical Examiner Ronald Key did not try to independently verify the identities of the victims, even though Young’s face was disfigured by fire. Authorities sent the wrong corpse – the body of Young’s friend, Gina Johnson, who also died in the crash – to a New Jersey funeral home.
Her family scrambled to find her remains, wrongly sent to a Greensboro crematorium.
Key relied on the incorrect information from Hurley. A relatively inexperienced trooper, Hurley attempted to identify the bodies at the crash scene using their passports.
Witnesses have testified that Hurley sent a handbag containing the passports to the morgue for examination, but Key never looked at them.
The State attorney general’s office argued that medical examiners have no legal obligation to identify the body through an autopsy, dental records or tests.
Former North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts testified Tuesday that Key did not violate agency policy because it is common for medical examiners to depend on law enforcement to identify bodies. Under cross-examination Wednesday, Butts acknowledged that he would have handled the investigation differently.
“I would have pursued it further,” Butts said.
Asked whether Key’s failure to inspect the purse containing the passports constituted a breach of duty, Butts replied that “he (Key) should have examined it.”
Butts also said it would have been “reasonable” for Key to ask how the police were able to identify the bodies.
Winning a case against the state won’t be easy.
North Carolina law grants broad protections to public officials. The N.C. attorney general’s office has argued that state law shields the government from liability because medical examiners work for the public and have no duty to individual families.
The Observer has compiled a database that contains information on suspicious deaths from 2005 through mid-2011 in which medical examiners didn’t view the body and didn’t order an autopsy.