PHOENIX (AP) — The owner of a now-closed body donation facility was found civilly liable Tuesday for mishandling remains in about half of 21 cases filed by families of the dead.
A jury awarded $58 million to 10 of 21 plaintiffs in the case against Stephen Gore, owner of the Biological Resource Center of Arizona. The jury awarded $8 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages. Michael Burg, an attorney representing donor families, said he believed the jury did not rule in favor of 11 other plaintiffs because they didn’t testify at trial.
Gore’s business was accused of committing fraud by claiming the donated bodies would be used for medical research, when in at least two cases it knew the remains would be sold for use in military testing.
The lawsuit also alleged that donor families who were promised the cremated remains of relatives received boxes with what they thought were their loved ones, but later discovered the bodies were sold to third parties or were still at the facility.
The families contended they were weren’t told the bodies would be used in ways they wouldn’t have approved. During the three-week trial, jurors were shown the business’ price list, showing, for instance, that a torso without a head sold for $4,000.
Timothy O’Connor, an attorney for Gore, declined to comment on the verdict.
He had argued that clients signed consent forms granting permission to dissect donated bodies.
Gwendolyn Aloia, who was awarded $5.5 million, said the case shows that the body donation industry needs more government regulation.
Her husband’s remains were donated after his 2013 cancer death, but she testified that she wouldn’t have allowed it had she known his remains would be sold for profit. She doubts the cremated remains that she was given were her husband’s.
Lawyers representing the donor families had asked for $13 million for each plaintiff but acknowledged ahead of the verdict that Gore isn’t likely to be able to pay a large award. They said they brought the case to trial to hold Gore and his business accountable.
Cadaver donation companies distribute remains to universities, medical device manufacturers and drug companies. The companies pay the associated costs and use the bodies for medical education and research, and families save burial or cremation costs.
The facility in Phoenix was raided in January 2014 by FBI employees wearing hazardous-material suits. A retired FBI agent testified that body parts were piled on top of each other and had no identification. He said he saw one torso that had its head removed and a smaller head sewn on, comparing the discovery to a character from Frankenstein.
Though Gore has denied the allegations in the lawsuit, he acknowledged when pleading guilty to illegally conducting an enterprise that his firm provided vendors with human tissue that was contaminated and used the donations counter to the wishes of the donors.
In a letter to the sentencing judge, Gore said he should have been more involved in the supervision of his employees and could have been more open about the donation process.
Burg said body donation industry will learn from the verdict that there are consequences for deceptive practices. “It sends a message to others that don’t want to be honest or trick people into doing this,” Burg said.
By JACQUES BILLEAUD Associated Press