Sunday, August 09, 2009

Litigations after death

Bury the body or cremate it, whatever way you may want, it may be yet a matter of personal preference, but normally, the religion that the person was born to, dictates the choice. The integrity of the body is always desired, as it goes up in flames or allowed to putrefy. Any internal organs that are harvested after death and before delivery to relatives may leave no trace in the external appearance of the human frame. For the same reason, when the eyeballs are removed from the dead person, it is considered ethical that the sockets are stuffed and the eyelids are made to look normal. Even a mutilated body by accident or bomb blast are pieced together and stitched up before it is buried or cremated. When Michael Jackson’s brain was redelivered to the relatives after clinical examination for the criminal case that has been registered and for finding the cause of death, the brain was surgically re-fixed within the skull. Now that the body is fully integrated, the burial, it is expected, may take place soon.

Statutory laws and cases associated with dead bodies and removal of organs, after death, are rather weird. The Anatomy Act, 1949 sets out procedure in India for authority for removal of organs from dead bodies or dead bodies themselves for therapeutic, research or criminal investigations. In the case of a dead body lying in a hospital or prison and not claimed by any of the near relatives of the deceased person within forty-eight hours from the time of the death of the concerned person, the authority for the removal of any human organ from the dead body which so remains unclaimed may be given by the person in charge, for the time being, of the management or control of the hospital or prison, or by an employee of such hospital or prison authorised in this behalf by the person in charge of the management or control thereof. No authority shall be given if the person empowered to give such authority has reason to believe that any near relative of the deceased person is likely to claim the dead body even though such near relative has not come forward to claim the body. Can a person insist that the Hospital shall take his body after his death? In K. Uma Mahesh v The State of Tamil Nadu, rep. by its Secretary to Government, Health and Family Welfare Dept. Fort St. George, Ms. 9 and 2 others (1998), there was a challenge to the provisions of the Anatomy Act itself on the ground that there was no provision for acceptance of the body, except those that were unclaimed. Without testing the validity of the Act itself, the Madras Court said that the desire of the petitioner was commendable and directed the Director, Institute of Anatomy to accept the body if the same was intimated and the body had been brought without losing much time after death.

Does a person have a right to protect any part of the body of his or her spouse before death? In Smt. Sumakiran Mallena v The Secretary, Medical and Health and others (2008), the wife of the donor filed a writ petition challenging the decision of her husband to donate a portion of the liver to his father who was reportedly suffering from decomposed cirrhosis of liver, - a HCV related incurable liver function. The court rejected the petition as not maintainable, holding that no legal right existed for the wife to prevent her husband’s decision. The court pointed out that the case had been filed on two wrong presumptions that (i) her husband’s affection towards his parents should be subservient to the marital relationship between him and the petitioner, and (ii) that he cannot donate his organs with her consent. On both counts, the court found against the petitioner.

In Madhu Vijayan and another v S.G.Ravishankar (2006) the dispute was for custody of the ashes between the wife and son of the deceased O.V.Vijayan ( a renowned author and story teller) on the one hand and the nephew of the deceased on the other who had performed the obsequies. The Court said there was no property in the ashes but resolved the controversy between parties by allowing the legal heirs to offer prayers with the ashes kept in the custody of the nephew and that the ashes could be jointly immersed at Hardwar by both the litigating parties, a ceremony that was completed nearly a year after the death.

The foreign jurisdiction in U.K. and U.S.A.have had their share of interesting cases as well. In so far as there can be property in corpses or parts thereof, presumably it will vest initially in person carrying out the stuffing or embalming process, or taking steps for their preservation, on the basis that he is the first possessor. Re Organ Retention Group Litigation(2004) is authority for the proposition that if autopsy is conducted with consent, the removal of organs for the purpose of lab tests and report is implicit and no action will lie for damages for removal of organs. The U.S courts have always recognized the rights of next of kin of a deceased person a right to possession of the dead body for decent burial or cremation but not a right to the body as if it were property. To provide California non-profit eye banks with an adequate supply of corneal tissue, Cal. Gov't Code § 27491.47(a) authorized the coroner to remove and release or authorize the removal and release of corneal eye tissue from a body within the coroner's custody without any effort to notify and obtain the consent of next of kin if the coroner has no knowledge of objection to the removal. The law also provided that the coroner or any person acting upon his or her request shall not incur civil liability for such removal in an action brought by any person who did not object prior to the removal nor be subject to criminal prosecution, Cal. Gov't Code § 27491.47(b). In Robert Newman, as father and next of kin of Richard A. Newman and Others v L. Sathyavaglswaran, M.D., in his official capacity as Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Of The County Of Los Angeles(2002) , the parents, whose deceased children's corneas were removed by the Los Angeles County Coroner's office without notice or consent brought a suit challenging the removal. The court of appeals concluded that the longstanding recognition in the law of California, paralleled by national common law, that next of kin have the exclusive right to possess the bodies of their deceased family members created a property interest, the deprivation of which must be accorded due process of law under U.S. Const. amend. XIV. The court ruled that parents have property interests in the corneas of their deceased children protected by the Due Process Clause of U.S.

Litigations just do not last merely a life time. In death as in life, will litigations thrive!


Anonymous said...

Sir, perhaps I'm tunnel visioned, but I just can't see how people can be so irrational. What is more holy in interring a 'complete' body than donating healthy organs that give life to another, I cannot understand. A person, after his death, survives in human memories alone. I'm sure people will agree when i say that being buried in another human body is more.. hygienic than being buried in a soil full of invisible scavengers!!

Sentiments are shaped by environment, environment is shaped by the society, the society is heavily influenced by religion and religion holds that its origins are otherworldly and therefore rational laws don't apply to it.

As long as people continue to see religion as something otherworldly instead of realizing that the concepts of God comes from within our own heads and most major religions are a product of community politics, much time will be wasted on discussions which, when approached from a humanistic point of view, will occupy no more than a few minutes.

Nice post, sir. If more professionals take to technology as you do, public debates will be well-guided.

ஜீவன் said...

நாட்டிலேயே முதன்முறையாக தங்கள் சொத்து விவரங்களை அறிவித்த முதல் நீதிபதி ஆகிய தங்களுக்கு என் பணிவான வணக்கங்கள்!!!

Anonymous said...

In lighter vein, the property in the mummies of the Pyramids therefore should belong to Egyptians. Glorifying the dead body has led to the unfortunate situation leading to pomp and gaiety even in disposal. While in olden days it was simple disposal either through burning or cremation, now it has become a big time issue and especially if it is for the rich and famous, like Micheal Jackson. The entire issue is just a waste of time for the world unnecessarily polluting the world by taking up valuable newsprint and air time.

A question ::
Will it be violating the fundamental right of (the deceased and also of ) the family, if the Governments enact a law stating that the dead bodies would be Government property from the moment of death, except that the families would have only a right of disposal, after the body is handed over putting it to some utility ???