Judge Rules After Coroner Sued Over Body Part

Wednesday's ruling not the last in this case

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    A San Mateo County judge has tentatively dismissed a lawsuit filed by a New York family who claims their son's remains were mishandled by the county coroner's office.
        Jerald and Sandy Wolkoff filed the lawsuit against the coroner's office last year after learning that it had given parts of their 30-year-old son Steven's brain to an ambulance company to be dissected and examined.
        The suit claimed that the couple experienced emotional distress because the coroner released the brain samples to American Medical Response,  which was gathering forensic information to defend itself against a wrongful-death lawsuit also filed by the Wolkoffs.

    The case is explained in this SF Gate article.
        In a tentative ruling issued this afternoon, the lawsuit was dismissed with the option for amendment. The court had been scheduled to hear a motion to dismiss the case on Thursday at 9 a.m.
        The family's attorney, Jayme Burns, said the Wolkoffs are planning to file an amended complaint and are deciding whether to contest the tentative ruling.
        In the separate wrongful-death suit, which has been settled, the couple sued the ambulance company claiming that a procedure paramedics had used on their son caused brain damage and contributed to his death, according  to Burns.
        Steven Wolkoff was one of two people killed in a seven-car pileup on state Highway 1 in unincorporated San Mateo County in June 2008. He was  pronounced dead at the scene.
        The lawsuit dismissed today alleged that the coroner's office released Wolkoff's brain to a third party -- referring to AMR -- and allowed it to be cut into almost two dozen pieces, without the consent of the Wolkoff  family, whose religious beliefs under Judaism required that their son's remains be buried in totality.
        "It's important to them to bury the entire body," Burns said.
        The Wolkoffs learned of the coroner's office's actions through a deposition for the wrongful-death lawsuit against AMR.
        "No one from (the coroner's office) ever informed us or sought our permission to have the defendant in the wrongful death suit dissect new  slides of Steven's brain over two years after his cause of death was  determined by their office," Jerald Wolkoff said in a statement issued Tuesday.
        Burns said that Steven Wolkoff's cause of death had been determined in 2008 prior to the release of his brain to AMR.
        San Mateo County Deputy County Counsel David Levy said American  Medical Response requested a sample of the brain after the autopsy and has the right to retain such samples for research purposes under California law.
        The ambulance company had registered a subpoena for the brain tissue to further investigate the son's medical condition at the time of the crash.
        Levy said the Wolkoffs' lawyers received the subpoena and did not object, and that San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault was following the  law when he turned over the materials requested.
        "If the family didn't want him to do that, they should have objected through their lawyer," Levy said.
        Foucrault did not return a call for comment.
        The Wolkoff case is not the first time the coroner's office has been faced with a lawsuit over the alleged mishandling of remains.
        In 2006, Daly City resident Isolina Picon learned after interring her son's body that the coroner had returned her son's remains without his  heart.
        Picon sued the coroner for keeping his heart to study the cause of death, but a state appeals court tossed out the case in 2010. The appeals  court said that state law gives a coroner's office "discretion to retain tissues and parts of the body" to determine the cause of death, as well as to  perform other duties.
        Although the Picon's case was dismissed, it led the Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution recommending the coroner institute a policy of informing the next of kin when remains are retained.
        Burns, an attorney for the Wolkoffs, said the new lawsuit aimed to  rekindle a conversation on that policy.
        "We'd like to -- that was kind of the purpose," she said.