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Justice for Grave Injustices

End of life decisions reach beyond making difficult choices in medical care and treatment.  Considering what to do with the body of a loved one upon their death can be a most onerous and unpleasant task.  A critically important part of life is ensuring that our loved ones’ wishes are respected following their deaths as well as their body being treated with dignity and respect.  Two disturbing incidents have occurred in Philadelphia recently involving the mistreatment of corpses, bringing these important considerations into focus.

The second incident, also reported by multiple news outlets, came to light after Philadelphia police received a tip that Hawkins Funeral Services in West Philadelphia was operating illegally.  Police discovered three decomposing bodies due to a lack of refrigeration.  The grisly findings included one embalmed body in a coffin and two decomposing bodies, along with a bag of human organs inside the building.  The funeral home is unlicensed.  While the director of the funeral home asserted that she has paperwork that the bodies found were to be cremated and do not require refrigeration, Philadelphia Police Lieutenant John Walker stated, “You have a responsibility to care for the dead as you are supposed to. . . You shouldn’t cut corners in situations like this where you’re using a building that you clearly know has been out of business for some time.”  This responsibility is more than merely a moral obligation but a legal duty.

It is unimaginable to think that similar fates could occur to the remains of loved ones.  Fortunately, there are criminal and civil remedies available in Pennsylvania.

  • 5510.  Abuse of corpse.

Except as authorized by law, a person who treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.

In addition to making it a criminal offense to mistreat a corpse, Pennsylvania also recognizes that the abuse of a corpse and the related outrage of ordinary family sensibilities give rise to civil remedies for interference with a dead body of a family member (loved one).

As with the two recent incidents in Philadelphia, at times funeral homes, hospitals, or other entities fail to take the kind of care and pay the type of respect that should be afforded the bodies of loved ones. This lack of care can lead to horrific situations wherein the bodies of loved ones are mistreated, or used for unauthorized purposes. Fortunately, there are remedies under the law to achieve civil justice for these grave injustices.

In the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Papieves v. Lawrence, 263 A.2d 118 (Pa. 1970), the court officially recognized and applied the common-law tort of interference with a dead body. In so doing, the court recognized section 868 of the first restatement of torts:

a person who wantonly mistreats the body of a dead person or who without privilege intentionally removes, withholds or operates upon the dead body is liable to the member of the family of such a person who is entitled to the disposition of the body.

Accordingly, a person who is a family member and possesses the right to make decisions regarding the disposition of the family member’s body, has the right to make a civil claim against a defendant or defendants for damages in the following scenarios:

  1. Defendant(s) acted with wanton state of mind in mistreatment of body;

OR

  1. Defendant(s) acted intentionally, without privilege, to remove, withhold or operate on the dead body;

OR

  1. Defendant(s) acted with both states of mind.

Pennsylvania courts have held that it is not necessary to show specific intent by the defendant(s) to cause serious mental distress.  Rather, the aggrieved family member must show an intentional or wanton act by the defendant(s) likely to cause severe emotional distress or that it was highly probable the act would cause acute and poignant emotional distress.

Examples of such conduct include:

Unlawful internment or disinterment of a body

Intentional interference with a burial

Wanton mutilation or unauthorized embalming of a corpse

Other intentional, reckless, or wanton acts likely to cause severe emotional distress.

The damages from such “tortious interference with a dead body” cases are often unconventional due to the unique nature of these cases. Sometimes religious beliefs are profoundly violated, creating the type of pain and harm to loved ones that is permanent.  Sometimes it is the fact that the loved one’s remains were treated inhumanely and the pain, guilt, and anger that are associated with that fact.

In addition to attempting to obtain a sense of justice, civil remedies also send a message prospectively to the offenders to never repeat their offensive acts or they will have to pay a heavy price.  This type of justice often serves to have a remedial affect in preventing further similar harm to others.

We live in a society where we value family and tradition.  The treatment of our loved ones’ bodies after death must be considered a priority.  In a civilized society certain acts are intrinsically wrong.  Civil remedies for those aggrieved by such wrongs provide an important measure solace for those so harmed.

 

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