Cadaver Conundrum at George Washington U

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Less than nine months after donating her grandmother’s body to George Washington University for medical research, Eileen Kostaris received a phone call.
     On the other end was Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health.
     There had been a “mix up,” Kostaris says she was told, with some of the cadavers in the university’s possession, and they could no longer verify their identities.
     That was in February. Kostaris says her grandmother’s remains, which she expected to be returned to her as ashes, are still missing.
     The Gaithersburg woman on Tuesday joined two others with similar stories to file a class action in D.C. Superior Court.
     They say George Washington University failed to properly track bodies entrusted to it, and rushed to cremate the remains as part of a cover-up upon discovering the potential issues with identification.
     Now donors like Kostaris can’t be sure, according to the complaint, whether the cremated remains they were given are actually those of their relatives and not of a stranger.
     Co-plaintiff Mary Louise Powell says the ashes the university claimed were her mother’s included a certificate that shows the body was cremated in December 2015 – more than a month before a university employee told Powell her mother’s body was still being studied.
     “The university garnered the trust of the plaintiffs and other class members by promising them that if the remains of their deceased family members could be used for scientific and medical purposes that, ‘the body will, at all times, be treated with respect and dignity,’ and returned, after cremation, to the family after a ‘twenty-four to thirty-six month period,'” the complaint reads. “The university failed to keep these sacred promises.”
     To keep track of the bodies in its possession, according to the complaint, the university uses metal tags with identification numbers printed on them that are meant to travel wherever the bodies go.
     But as many as seven years ago, the university started slipping on ensuring the tags always followed the bodies, the class claims.
     “Tags were removed from bodies when they were transported to laboratories for study and tags were returned to the morgue without tags,” the complaint states. “There was no medical, scientific or other reason to remove the tags. They were simply removed, lost and misplaced as a result of pure negligence and lack of oversight.”
     A whistleblower brought the “irregularities” in the university’s identification of the donated bodies to “high-ranking university officials” in September 2015, but the class claims the school has been returning unknown remains to family members for years.
     The university did not tell the families about the potential errors until January 2016, according to the complaint.
     Before coming clean, however, the university “rushed” to cremate the bodies, according to the complaint.
     This was done initially without preserving a DNA sample for later identification purposes, the class says. Powell says her mother was one of these early, sample-lacking cases.
     “The only reason to cremate the bodies before taking steps to identify them and to withhold the fact that DNA samples had been preserved is the apparent desire, on the part of the university, to cover up its negligence by returning cremains, at random, to families to whom they may not belong,” the class claims.
     The school started collecting pre-cremation DNA samples thereafter, but the class says this was done sloppily too.
     “Both the rushed and unlawful cremation of unidentified bodies, and the saving of genetic material were done without first obtaining consent or even notifying the affected families,” the complaint states.
     As of Wednesday morning, the university had not been served in the case and said through a spokeswoman it is still working with affected families.
     “As we have said previously, last fall, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences learned that the management of the willed body donor program was not consistent with the standards that donors and their families deserve and expect,” George Washington University spokeswoman Candace Smith said in an email. “As a result, we ended acceptance of donor bodies and began an internal review. There has been no intent on the part of the university to mislead affected families. We will address this lawsuit in an appropriate legal forum not in the news media.”
     The class seeks $60 million as well as additional punitive damages for fraud, misrepresentation and negligence.
     Cary J. Hansel, a Baltimore attorney who represents the class, did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

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