The family of a grandmother who allegedly froze to death after being mistakenly put in a hospital morgue while still alive have been cleared to sue the hospital involved.
80-year-old Maria de Jesus Arroyo was allegedly frozen alive in a body bag after doctors at the White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles prematurely declared her dead following a cardiac arrest on 26 July, 2010.
The terrible error was not discovered until morticians set about preparing her body for the funeral and found her lying face down in the half-unzipped body bag with a broken nose and bruises and gashes on her face.
The family assumed that Ms Arroyo had been roughly handled by hospital morgue workers and went on to file a negligence suit in January 2011, claiming the hospital was to blame for mutilating their loved one's body.
But Dr William Manion, a New Jersey pathologist retained by the family as an expert witness, reviewed medical records and sworn statements of hospital personnel and reached a far more horrific conclusion.
He said Ms Arroyo had been prematurely declared dead and was placed alive in the freezer of the hospital morgue where she eventually regained consciousness due to the extreme cold and "damaged her face and turned herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb".
As a result, the family dropped its original lawsuit and filed a new claim accusing the hospital of malpractice and wrongful death.
A lower-court judge had originally dismissed the lawsuit brought in May 2012 on grounds that the statute of limitations had lapsed.
But a three-judge panel of a state of appeals court sided with the family on Wednesday in agreeing that they could not have known how Ms Arroyo was alleged to have died until they were presented with the pathologist’s findings in December 2011.
“Plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the hospital morgue,” the court documents stated. The lawsuit will now return to the Los Angeles Superior Court.
The family's lawyer, Scott Schutzman, said on Thursday: “It really has to be your worst nightmare to wake up like that, the worst way to die. Can you imagine trying to get out of a zippered bag?”
The hospital declined in a brief statement to comment on the case, except to say that “we continue to disagree with the allegations being made”.
“We followed all proper protocols in the matter, and are confident that once the facts of the case are reviewed we will prevail in court,” the statement said.
Schutzman said the family has “no choice” but to go to trial, as “there has never been a settlement offer in this case”. He said he expects the case to reach trial within a year.
Additional reporting by Reuters