Newman v. Sathyavaglswaran

Case Summary for my Law & Bioethics graduate school course

by Don Stacy

 

Robert NEWMAN, Appellant, v. L. SATHYAVAGLSWARAN, Appellee, United States Court of Appeals, 287 F.3d 786 (9th Cir. 2002).

 

COURT

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

 

PARTIES

Plaintiff/Appellant: Robert Newman

Defendant/Appellee: L. Sathyavaglswaran

 

FACTS

In order to assist in providing the State of California’s non-profit eye banks with an adequate supply of corneal tissue for transplantation, the legislature adopted California Government Code (CGC) § 27492.47.  The code provides that the coroner is authorized to “remove and release or authorize the removal and release of corneal eye tissue from a body within the coroner’s custody . . . if the coroner has no knowledge of objection to the removal.”  The section also protects the coroner from civil and criminal liability for removing such tissue, provided there was no objection to the tissue being removed. Robert Newman and Barbara Obarski each had children who died in Los Angeles County in October 1997. After their deaths, the Office of the Coroner for the County of Los Angeles (the coroner L. Sathyavaglswaran) obtained possession of the bodies of the children. Following procedures adopted pursuant to California Government Code 27492.47, the coroner removed the corneas from the two bodies without the knowledge of the parents and without an attempt to notify them and request consent. In September 1999, the parents became aware of the coroner’s actions and pursued legal action.

 

PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT’S CONTENTIONS

The parents alleged a taking of their property without due process of law (a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action) in violation of the 14th Amendment.

 

DEFENDANT/APPELLEE’S CONTENTIONS

The defendant denied the allegation.

 

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

As noted above, Robert Newman and Barbara Obarski filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action alleging a deprivation of their property without due process of law in violation of the 14th Amendment. The relevant district court dismissed the complaint for a failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The parents then appealed.

 

ISSUE

Does the next of kin of a deceased person have a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent?

 

HOLDING

Yes.  The next of kin of the deceased has a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent.  Each individual has a fundamental right to the possession and control of his own person. However, it is not as clear whether the Due Process Clause extends to the rights of kin regarding possession and control of the body of a deceased relative.  A dead body has traditionally been viewed as not being the subject of property rights, and the State of California has a significant state interest in obtaining corneas and other tissue for transplantation.  However, following traditional principles of common law, the United States Court of Appeals recognized that preservation of the dignity of the human body is also firmly rooted in both social and legal traditions.  The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), adopted by California in 1968, grants the next of kin the right to transfer body parts for medical purposes and limits such transfers to not include the sale of body parts.  The transfers require consent, and the prohibition of ascribing a positive monetary value to the body does not negate the classification of the body of a deceased person as being property.  To help increase the supply of particular tissues for transplantation, some states passed “presumed consent” laws, such as CGC § 27491.47, to allow removal of tissue so long as no objection to the removal is known.  The “no knowledge of objection” clause implies that informed consent will be obtained and acknowledges the property rights of the next of kin of the deceased.

 

RULES

The next of kin of a deceased person has a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent.

 

RESULT

The United States Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal of the complaint of the parents and remanded the case for proceedings in which the government’s justification for its deprivation of the interests of the parents would be aired fully and scrutinized appropriately.

 

IMPLICATIONS/ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

This case established that the next of kin of a deceased person has a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent.