Lawsuit States Ambulance Company Dissected Man's Brain

Lawyers say a coroner was complying with a subpoena to release brain tissue for analysis by AMR


 
 

Nanette Asimov, The San Francisco Chronicle | | Wednesday, February 22, 2012


SAN MATEO, Calif. -- The San Mateo County coroner is being sued for a second time over the handling of body parts, this time defending its right to let an ambulance company dissect a man's brain.

In 2010, a state appeals court dismissed a case against the coroner after the mother of a Daly City man accused the office of improperly withholding her son's heart for testing after he had died of heart failure.

Lawyers for San Mateo County have asked that the new case also be tossed out, and a Superior Court judge is expected to issue a tentative ruling today.

That case involves a New York couple accusing Coroner Robert Foucrault and his office of negligence for letting an ambulance company take and dissect the brain of their 30-year-old son after he was killed in a 2008 auto accident.

Lawyers representing the county say the coroner was simply complying with a subpoena to release brain tissue for analysis by the American Medical Response ambulance company, which wanted to gather forensic information to defend itself in a separate, wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the man's parents. That suit has since been settled.

Complying with such subpoenas by allowing a third party to dissect tissue is "very routine," said David Levy, the deputy county counsel representing Foucrault and the coroner's office.

Jerald and Sandy Wolkoff allege that the coroner was negligent in allowing the ambulance company to take their son's brain and cut it apart. They say they have suffered emotional distress and will have to reopen their son's grave. They are asking for unspecified monetary damages to pay the cost of travel, religious services and reburying their son.

Observant Jews, the Wolkoffs say in their lawsuit that unless dissection is done for urgent, medical reasons, it is "considered a matter of shame and gross dishonor" in their faith.

Steven Wolkoff was killed on June 21, 2008, as he drove north on Highway 1 in San Mateo County. A southbound car had slammed into a vehicle waiting to turn left onto Green Oaks Way, pushing it into oncoming traffic where it hit Steven Wolkoff's car.

American Medical Response paramedics treated him at the scene but were unable to save his life. The Wolkoffs sued the ambulance company, alleging that a procedure paramedics conducted with a needle to help their son breathe caused brain damage and contributed to his death, said the family's attorney, Jayme Burns.

The subpoena from American Medical Response requested "pathology slides" and "tissue blocks" from Steven Wolkoff's brain.

What happened next is the crux of the dispute.

Burns said the family believed American Medical Response would examine Steven Wolkoff's remains at the coroner's office, where his brain had remained intact after an authorized autopsy.

Once the coroner gave the material to the ambulance company, however, "the brain stem was sliced and cut into approximately 20 pieces," according to the lawsuit.

Judge V. Raymond Swope is expected to issue a tentative ruling by 3 p.m. today on whether the case can proceed.
 



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