The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (“Maryland Appellate Court”), Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, held in its published opinion dated January 29, 2020: “We expressly reject the Appellants’ assertion that Ms. Mattingly had a duty to preserve her son’s remains in order to allow the Appellants’ to undertake their own independent analysis … Ms. Mattingly made proper arrangements for the disposition of her son’s remains “as would be expected in the circumstances.” Id. We, therefore, hold that the circuit court appropriately denied the motions for summary judgment and for judgment on the basis of spoliation … Ms. Mattingly did not engage in spoliation of evidence when she arranged for the appropriate disposition of her son’s remains. Accordingly, we hold that no spoliation instruction was generated by the facts of this case, and the circuit court properly denied the request for such an instruction.”
The Underlying Facts
Mr. Mattingly’s mother, Susan Mattingly (“Ms. Mattingly”), filed a Maryland medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit, both individually and as Personal Representative of her son’s estate, against Dr. Anand and Adventist Healthcare, Inc. d/b/a Washington Adventist Hospital (“WAH”), alleging both wrongful death and survival claims. Ms. Mattingly alleged that Dr. Anand breached the standard of care by failing to timely diagnose and treat a bowel leak after her son’s surgery to reverse his colostomy, which ultimately caused infection and sepsis, resulting in Mr. Mattingly’s death. Ms. Mattingly further alleged that a nurse employed by WAH was negligent for failing to escalate the issue pursuant to hospital policy after Dr. Anand failed to respond to multiple telephone calls on the morning of August 5, 2014, while Mr. Mattingly became progressively more ill.
After Mr. Mattingly’s death, Ms. Mattingly wanted an autopsy to be performed in order to learn the cause of death. A request for an autopsy was made to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland, but the request was denied. Ultimately, a private autopsy was arranged through Ms. Mattingly’s attorney. The autopsy was performed at a funeral home by an autopsy technician and a pathologist. After the autopsy was completed, the organs were returned to the body. Ms. Mattingly subsequently chose to have Mr. Mattingly’s remains cremated.
Dr. Anand moved for summary judgment arguing that Ms. Mattingly engaged in spoliation of evidence by procuring a private autopsy and subsequently cremating Mr. Mattingly’s remains. Specifically, Dr. Anand emphasized that the defendants were not permitted to observe the autopsy, the autopsy was not videotaped, the abdominal fluid was not tested, and the body was cremated. The circuit court denied the motion for summary judgment, explaining that the concerns raised about the autopsy went to its “weight and credibility” and were “[j]ury issues.”
The Maryland medical malpractice wrongful death jury returned a verdict in favor of Ms. Mattingly against both defendants and awarded damages in the amount of $1,350,000.00. The verdict was reduced pursuant to the statutory cap on non-economic damages to $740,000. Judgment was entered jointly and severally against both defendants. The defendants then filed their appeal.
Maryland Appellate Court Opinion
The Maryland Appellate Court stated “the first critical inquiry we must undertake is a determination of whether Ms. Mattingly’s decision to obtain a private autopsy and subsequently have her son’s remains cremated constituted spoliation. We shall hold that it did not.”
The Maryland Appellate Court explained “Spoliation is a doctrine “grounded in fairness and symmetry … The doctrine is premised upon the principle that “a party should not be allowed to support its claims or defenses with physical evidence that it has destroyed to the detriment of its opponent” … When determining whether spoliation has occurred, a court considers whether there has been an act of destruction, whether the destroyed evidence was discoverable, whether there was an intent to destroy the evidence, and whether the destruction occurred at a time after suit has been filed, or, if before, at a time when the filing was fairly perceived as imminent.”
The Maryland Appellate Court held: “The lawful cremation of a family member’s remains is not an “act of destruction” in the spoliation context, nor does Ms. Mattingly’s decision to have her son’s remains cremated evince an intent to destroy evidence. We hold that Ms. Mattingly, a person holding authority over the disposition of her son’s remains pursuant to HG §§ 5-502 and 5-509(c), owed no duty to preserve “evidence” and had no obligation to permit Dr. Anand and/or WAH to participate in any autopsy for her son, nor was Ms. Mattingly required to notify Dr. Anand and/or WAH prior to having her son’s remains cremated … we reject the characterization of the autopsy and subsequent cremation as deliberate spoliation of evidence. Ms. Mattingly made proper arrangements for the disposition of her son’s remains “as would be expected in the circumstances.” Id. We, therefore, hold that the circuit court appropriately denied the motions for summary judgment and for judgment on the basis of spoliation.”
Source Adventist Healthcare, Inc., et al. v. Susan M. Mattingly, No. 2104, Sept. Term 2018.
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