Cadaver Class in San Marcos Frustrated by Balky Insurer

Times Staff Writer

An insurance company's refusal to provide coverage for San Marcos High School's use of a cadaver may have eliminated a teacher's plans to use the body as an instructional aide, school officials said Wednesday.

Teacher Jan Mongoven, hoping to enhance what his students learn from textbooks by giving them a "hands-on" experience, had planned to obtain a cadaver from the UC San Diego Medical School for use in his advanced physiology courses. The San Marcos Board of Trustees endorsed the idea over the summer, and the body was due to arrive early next month.

But Industrial Indemnity Co., which insures the San Marcos Unified School District and hundreds of other districts in California and Arizona, refused to provide coverage for the cadaver, calling it "an unacceptable exposure."

Pat Young, custom programs manager for Industrial Indemnity in San Diego, said a cadaver "is an exposure that is simply not contemplated in the underwriting of high schools."

"We insure many school districts, and we are prepared for exposures such as athletic activity, slips and falls, playground problems," he said. "But we are not prepared to accept this. We will continue to provide general liability, but the district will have to arrange other coverage (for the body)."

Young declined to elaborate on why Industrial Indemnity considered a cadaver an unacceptable risk, preferring to "leave that to the imagination." But San Marcos High School Principal Wes Walsvick said he suspects that the company fears the cadaver could make the school district vulnerable to "trauma suits."

"I guess the reasoning is that a student could be traumatized by the cadaver experience and then sue the district," Walsvick said.

The principal added that a recent lawsuit filed against the Escondido Union High School District by a student who claims that a teacher forced her to watch a movie depicting beheadings and electrocutions might have the insurance officials "running scared." The company also insures the Escondido district.

Walsvick said that, in order to permit Mongoven to use the cadaver, the district would have to arrange special coverage through another company. At the next school board meeting Oct. 28, district officials will ask trustees whether they wish to fund the additional coverage, Walsvick said.

When informed of the insurance snafu by a reporter Wednesday, Mongoven said: "Oh, no. Why would you need insurance on a cadaver?"

Upon further reflection, he said he realized why the company might be "edgy about it" but he said he would "never force students to work with the cadaver or do anything that was traumatic for them. It's an elective course, and the cadaver is an elective within the elective."

Mongoven added that the juniors and seniors in his class were "eager" to study the cadaver and that "it would be an emotional letdown for them if we don't get it. Tomorrow we're doing a rat dissection but that's just not the same thing."

The teacher planned to obtain the cadaver from UC San Diego Medical School's Body Donation Program, established in 1980 to give specimens not needed at the medical school to other colleges. To date, only two high schools, one in Mission Viejo and the other north of Los Angeles, have obtained cadavers through the program.

Mongoven said he believes that dissecting a cadaver would greatly enhance his students' knowledge of anatomy. When not in use, the body would be kept in a locked storage room adjacent to Mongoven's laboratory.

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