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Maryland Court Rules that Cremation Does Not Constitute Spoliation in Medical Malpractice Cases

When people have to contend with the death of a loved one in Maryland, they are often focused on laying the departed loved one to rest and healing emotionally, rather than a potential lawsuit. Thus, an innocent act such a cremating a loved one’s remains may provide fodder for a defendant to argue that his or her defenses have been damaged in a subsequent case that arises out of the deceased person’s death. This was demonstrated in a recent medical malpractice case in which the defendant appealed a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, arguing that the cremation of the plaintiff’s decedent’s remains constituted spoliation. If you suffered the loss of a loved one due to medical malpractice, it is critical to speak with an attorney regarding what you can do to preserve your rights.

Factual Background

It is reported that the plaintiff’s decedent underwent a surgical reversal of a colostomy, which was performed at the defendant hospital. After the surgery, the decedent developed an infection and sepsis. He died five days after the surgery. It was ultimately revealed that he suffered a bowel leak, which the defendant surgeon failed to diagnose and treat in a timely manner. The plaintiff then filed a medical malpractice claim against the defendants. Prior to trial, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff engaged in spoliation of evidence by having the decedent’s remains cremated after his autopsy. Following the trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The defendants appealed.

Spoliation Under Maryland Law

Under Maryland law, the doctrine of spoliation is grounded in fairness and symmetry. In sum, it is based on the principle that a party should not be able to base its claims or defenses on physical evidence that it has since destroyed, to the detriment of the opposing party. In assessing whether spoliation has occurred, a court will determine whether there has been an act of destruction, whether the party intended to destroy evidence and whether the destruction occurred before the suit was filed, when the suit was imminent, or after the suit was instituted.

In the subject case, the defendants argued that the cremation of the decedent’s body after his autopsy, without notice to the defendants, constituted a clear act of destruction. The plaintiff, however, argued that she did not commit an act of destruction, but was merely making arrangements for the decedent’s remains following his death. The court noted that there were no Maryland cases addressing the issue of whether, in a medical malpractice lawsuit, the cremation of a person’s remains may be an act of spoliation. The court ruled, however, that as the next of kin, the plaintiff had the right to make decisions regarding the disposition of the decedent’s remains. Further, the court found that the plaintiff acted as expected under the circumstances, and did not engage in purposeful destruction of evidence. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court ruling.

Speak with a Trusted Maryland Medical Malpractice Attorney

If you lost a loved one because of negligent medical care, it is wise to speak with a trusted Maryland medical malpractice attorney regarding what compensation you may be able to recover. The diligent attorneys of Arfaa Law Group have the skills and experience required to aid you in seeking the best outcome possible under the circumstances. You can contact us through our form online or at (410) 889-1850 to schedule a complimentary and confidential meeting.