Judge allows suit alleging that hospital ignored parents and performed fetal autopsy without consent

28 July 2023

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a Delaware hospital system performed an autopsy on a 16-week-old fetus despite the parents refusing to give their consent.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Winston denied a motion this week by Christiana Care Health Services and Christiana Care Health System to dismiss a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress filed by Maryland residents Meredith and Brandon Boas.

The couple had adequately stated a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Winston said. The offense is defined as “extreme and outrageous conduct” that intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another.

Attorneys for the hospital system argued that performing a fetal autopsy without consent and against the express wishes of the parents does not rise to the level of being “beyond all possible bounds of decency.”

“Plaintiffs do not allege that the autopsy was performed in an indecent manner or that CCHS intentionally abused the fetus by dissecting and examining the fetus’ internal organs,” hospital lawyers wrote.

Meredith Boas began to experience fluid leakage in May 2021 when she was 16 weeks pregnant, according to the complaint. After being admitted to Christiana Care and diagnosed with preterm premature rupture of the membranes, she chose to have labor induced.

“She explicitly stated that she wanted her baby to remain whole and intact; that was why she chose to vaginally deliver him,” the lawsuit states. “She delivered her baby boy, Ronan, approximately three hours later. Meredith and Brandon held Ronan and took pictures with him and said hello and goodbye for many hours.”

Meredith specifically declined an autopsy when a nurse handed her autopsy consent paperwork, and the couple wanted private cremation and funeral services, the lawsuit states. The couple wanted placental pathology but “no fetal autopsy unless there are visual abnormalities,” a doctor’s note states. Discharge notes also indicated that the mother specifically declined an autopsy, according to the lawsuit.

“Meredith and Brandon left the hospital on May 6, 2021 believing their baby would be taken to the morgue and then the funeral home,” the lawsuit states. “Instead — behind her back he was taken to pathology and was disemboweled.”

The couple didn’t learn what happened until more than a month later, when Meredith found the pathology report in her medical records.

“She, a grieving mother, read the words ‘the fetus is eviscerated’ and read how they took him apart after she had seen her son for the last time as whole and intact,” according to the lawsuit.

The couple was later told that the hospital had a policy of performing autopsies on any babies who died under 20 weeks, “regardless of explicit parental directives to the contrary,” the complaint states.

It is unclear whether such a policy is still in effect and whether Christiana Care officials acted contrary to staff rule documents that are publicly available online. According to those documents, which date back several years, an autopsy may be performed “only with proper consent in accordance with state law and hospital policy.” The documents also state that consent for an autopsy is effective only if it is noted on a hospital form “signed by the appropriate legal representative of the patient.”

An informational page on Christiana’s website for parents who have experienced a miscarriage or pregnancy loss indicates that parents can “choose” to have an autopsy and that they have up to 24 hours to make that decision.

Hiran Ratnayake, a Christiana Care spokesperson, refused to say whether the policies were in effect in May 2021. He also declined to address the court ruling, saying Christiana Care does not comment on pending legal matters.

While allowing the lawsuit to proceed, the judge did dismiss a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress. She said that claim could not remain because the parents themselves were not in a “zone of danger” in which negligent conduct causes a person to fear for his or her own safety.

“Plaintiffs claim defendants’ autopsy performance on their fetus, against their express consent, caused them emotional distress, and their fright arose when they read Mrs. Boas’s medical records,” Winston wrote. “Hence, plaintiffs’ fright arose from the peril of another, their fetus.”

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