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Newman v. Sathyavaglswaran

    Brief Fact Summary. Robert Newman and Barbara Obarski (Parents) (Plaintiffs) brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after the Los Angeles County Coroner (Defendant) removed the corneas of their deceased children without the Parents’ (Plaintiff) notification or consent.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The next of kin of the deceased has a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent.

    Facts. In order to assist in providing the State of California’s non-profit eye banks with an adequate supply of corneal tissue for transplantation, the legislature adopted California Government Code (CGC) § 27492.47.  The code provides, in pertinent part, that the coroner is authorized to “remove and release or authorize the removal and release of corneal eye tissue from a body within the coroner’s custody . . . if the coroner has no knowledge of objection to the removal.”  The section also protects the coroner from civil and criminal liability for removing such tissue, provided there was no objection to the tissue being removed.  Robert Newman and Barbara Obarski (Parents) (Plaintiff) each had children who died in 1997.  After their deaths, the Los Angeles County Coroner (Defendant) obtained possession of their bodies.  The Defendant, following the provisions of § 27492.47, removed the corneas from the children without attempting to notify the Plaintiffs or obtain their consent.  In 1999, the Plaintiffs learned of what the Coroner did and then filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claiming an unconstitutional taking of property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The district court dismissed and this appeal followed.

    Issue. Does the next of kin of the deceased have a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent?

    Held. [Judge not stated in casebook excerpt.]  Yes.  The next of kin of the deceased has a constitutionally protected property right in the disposition of the body of the decedent.  Clearly each individual has a fundamental right to the possession and control of his own person, however, it is not as clear whether the Due Process Clause extends to the rights of kin regarding possession and control of the body of a deceased relative.  A dead body has traditionally been viewed as not being the subject of property rights, and clearly California has a significant state interest in obtaining corneas and other tissue for transplantation.  However, following traditional principles of common law, this court recognizes that preservation of the dignity of the human body is also firmly rooted in both social and legal traditions.  The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), adopted by California in 1968, grants the next of kin the right to transfer body parts for medical purposes and limits such transfers to not include the sale of body parts.  The transfers require consent, and the prohibition of ascribing a positive monetary value to the body does not negate the classification of the body of a deceased person as being property.  To help increase the supply of particular tissues for transplantation, some states passed “presumed consent” laws, such as CGC § 27491.47 to allow removal of tissue so long as no objection to the removal is known.  The “no knowledge of objection” clause implies that informed consent will be obtained and acknowledges the property rights of the next of kin of the deceased.  Therefore, § 27491.47 is not unconstitutional on its face.  The case is reversed so the Defendant’s application of his statutory authority in this situation can be fully examined to determine if an unconstitutional taking in violation of due process occurred.  Reversed and remanded.

    Discussion. Legislative attempts at redistributing the property rights held by the next of kin of the deceased, even when there is a compelling interest of the state to do so, cannot override the fundamental right of due process.  While there is a shortfall of available tissue each year to meet transplantation needs, our society holds paramount individual liberties and the autonomy of an individual’s right to maintain control over his or her body.  Essentially, this right passes on to the next of kin at the time of death, and provides one of only several unique situations where a third party is allowed standing to raise the constitutional right of another.


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