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Widow loses lawsuit over UC Irvine’s willed body program

The widow of a man who donated his body to UC Irvine -- which lost track of it -- failed Monday in her 10-year-fight to hold the university accountable.

In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court held that family members have little say in what happens to a loved one’s body if the donor signed an agreement with the receiving institution and the institution complied with it.

State law “does not impose a duty on UCI to conduct its teaching and research in such a way as to safeguard the sensibilities of the surviving family members,” Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the court.

The decision, a victory for willed body programs, will probably affect the outcome of several pending lawsuits against UCLA’s body donation program, which was engulfed in scandal in 2004.

Monday’s ruling also ends the litigation over UC Irvine’s program. Dozens of family members of body donors sued the university when improprieties were revealed in the program more than a decade ago. Some suits were settled, others were dismissed and one went to trial, resulting in a $190,000 verdict for a family.

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In the case decided Monday, Evelyn Conroy sued after she learned the university could not account for the whereabouts of her husband’s body. Lower courts rejected her suit, and the state Supreme Court concluded that she failed to prove that the university violated its donation agreement with her husband.

“There is no evidence in the record that James Conroy’s body was used in a clandestine private tutoring class, transported or dismembered for profit or used in any manner other than that specified in the donation agreement,” Baxter said.

The court also held that the agreement for the body donation was between James Conroy and the university, and the right of a surviving spouse to control what happened to his body was superseded by the donation agreement he signed.

Paul M. Mahoney, who represented Evelyn Conroy in the case, said the ruling should be a warning to people to seek legal advice before agreeing to donate their bodies to science.

“People in this state now know that before they donate their bodies to research, they should get a lawyer and negotiate very clearly the terms of the donation,” Mahoney said.

Louis M. Marlin, who represented the university, said the decision made clear that a willed body program need only comply with the wishes and desires of the donor.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that the donors control the disposition and donation of their bodies,” Marlin said.

Marlin said the ruling also recognized that a willed body program is not subject to the rules and regulations covering funeral directors and mortuaries and has an entirely different purpose: “the betterment of mankind.”

Conroy’s body was turned over to the university when he died in 1999, just months before the scandal erupted. He had signed an agreement in 1996 saying that he “understood and agreed that the final disposition of my body by UCI shall be in accordance with the State Code.”

In suing the university, Evelyn Conroy presented evidence that Chris Brown, then the director of the program, had owned or colluded with companies that profited from dealings with donated cadavers.

But the evidence did not show Conroy’s body was involved in those dealings, the court said.

An audit of UCI’s willed body program subsequently revealed there were no records to show the final disposition of 320 of 441 bodies donated to the school from 1995 to 1999.

About eight months after the university received Conroy’s body, his widow read a newspaper article describing misconduct in the program and called the university to ask about her husband’s remains.

A month later, she received a call from the then-interim director who told her that Brown had failed to keep proper records and “UCI did not know what happened to her husband’s body after it was picked up.”

Conroy sued the university, alleging, among other things, that it had acted with fraud, deceit and negligence. But the court said she could not base her claims on evidence that involved bodies other than her husband’s.

The pending suits stemming from UCLA’s donor program involve allegations that the program director participated in a criminal enterprise with another individual who purchased donated cadavers for profit-making enterprises.

Marlin said Monday’s ruling would resolve most of those lawsuits, if not all of them. He said UC has revamped its program since the scandals and “imposed strong procedures, controls and oversight.”

After the UC Irvine suits were filed, the Legislature changed the law to require willed body programs to return the cremated remains to family members unless the donor agreed to give up that right.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com


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