The Los Angeles County coroner's office mistakenly cremated a 26-year-old man after confusing his remains with those of another man with the same name, authorities said Friday.
Coroner's officials said the mistake occurred because a technician failed to check the case number on the man's body, and they apologized to the family.
Jorge Hernandez died of a drug overdose Oct. 7 after being taken to Glendale Adventist Medical Center. His body was picked up by the coroner's office to determine a cause. The family began planning a funeral and private viewing for Hernandez until coroner's officials called them to say they mistakenly cremated his body.
Armand Montiel, a coroner's office spokesman, said the mistake happened because two men named Jorge Hernandez were at the morgue. The other Hernandez was indigent and was scheduled to be cremated.
"When retrieving the remains the coroner's attendant matched the name but did not match the coroner case number. It was an oversight by human error," Montiel said. The attendant sent the wrong remains for cremation, he said.
"The department is profoundly sorry for any additional discomfort that this has caused the loved ones of Mr. Hernandez," Montiel said. The chief medical examiner delivered a personal apology to the family, he said.
Family members remained stunned by the mistake.
"Sorry doesn't bring him back. This was really upsetting," Mary Lou Diaz said of her nephew's cremation. "I know they have bodies stacking up but there needs to be accountability here.
"We thought, 'No, this isn't happening. They have to be wrong,' " she said. "It was devastating. There was no goodbye. There was no closure. The whole family has been affected by this double tragedy."
The incident occurred as the coroner's office is trying to reduce a major backlog in cases caused by staffing shortages. The backlog has sparked complaints from families and law enforcement officials.
Luis Carrillo, an attorney for Hernandez's family, said a lawsuit is being planned.
"The coroner's office is chronically understaffed and underfunded, so errors get made and this has a very real impact on their survivors," he said. "There was apparently no supervisor double-checking on the bodies before cremation."
Carrillo said Hernandez's mother, Mirna Amaya, was particularly hit hard by the mistake. "She wanted photos of him peacefully resting in his coffin," Carrillo said. "She is so distraught she had to seek medical treatment."
The coroner's office's accreditation with the National Assn. of Medical Examiners was due to expire Aug. 24 but remains active pending the results and report of an inspection Oct. 17.
To keep its full, five-year accreditation, the office must be completed within 90 days in 90% of cases. However, an office with some shortcomings can receive provisional accreditation for a year. Such accreditation is not legally required but provides a guarantee of quality and bolsters an office's credibility in court.
Officials have blamed staffing and budget shortages, broken equipment and the difficulty in recruiting and training highly skilled employees for massive backlogs on autopsies and testing. County supervisors have boosted funding and the office is in the process of hiring 22 additional employees.
But as of Sept. 21, toxicology and other tests had not been completed on more than 1,500 bodies — an improvement over June, when the figure was 2,100.
In 2015, the L.A. coroner's office completed 81% of its cases within the 90-day window; the rate dropped to 78% between June 2015 and June 2016. As of last month, nearly 1,500 cases remain incomplete after 90 days, including roughly 570 that have lingered for more than 150 days.
Montiel said the coroner's office has a strict policy requiring staffers to check the name and the coroner's case number to make sure there are no misidentifications. He said this system has generally worked.
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