San Mateo County Coroner sued for mishandling body

Parents sued the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office for allowing an outside entity to examine the brain tissue of their son without their consent —

Jerald and Sandra Wolkoff, of New York, said the coroner allowed a person unaffiliated with the county agency to take tissue from the brain stem of their son Steven Wolkoff, according to a suit filed Feb. 24 in San Mateo County Superior Court.

This is not the first time the office has been sued for allegedly mishandling an autopsy.

Selina Picon, of Daly City, claimed the coroner illegally kept the heart of her 23-year-old son, Nicolas, after an autopsy. That suit was thrown out last May by the California 1st District Court of Appeal, which ruled she hadn’t proved the Coroner’s Office was obligated to get her consent to keep the organ.

Even though the Picon’s suit was unsuccessful, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office now informs families whenever it keeps body parts, after an autopsy.

In both cases, the coroner maintains that he and his office did nothing wrong.  Once an individual is brought to the morgue for an autopsy, families no longer have the right to determine what happens to their loved one. The body is essentially property of the state or county.  Families might object to a coroner holding on to a part of their loved one’s body, but coroners regularly keep body parts to study and examine.  Most coroners do not even conduct autopsies themselves.  Instead, bodies are autopsied by private pathologists or companies.

These two lawsuits are just the tip of the iceberg with respect to problems with how bodies are autopsied in America.

In a joint reporting effort, ProPublica, PBS “Frontline” and NPR spent a year looking at the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes. Blunders by doctors in America’s morgues have put innocent people in prison cells, allowed the guilty to go free and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing.

There have been federal legislative proposals to establish standards and regulations for all medical examiners and coroners.  But all have failed.  It is very hard to find the funding to improve the system.  Unless changes are made to how deaths are investigated, lawsuits will continue to be filed and mistakes will continued to be made.

Frontline’s report on this topic can be viewed here.

For more information on California’s death investigation system, go to:


~ by siouxsielaw on March 9, 2011.

One Response to “San Mateo County Coroner sued for mishandling body”

  1. […] I previously blogged about this case here. […]

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