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Conroy v. Regents of the University of California

April 6, 2009

EVELYN CONROY, PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
THE REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



Ct.App. 4/3 G035537 Orange County Super. Ct. No. 00CC01942. William F. McDonald and David C. Velasquez.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baxter, J.

The Willed Body Program at the University of California at Irvine accepts human cadavers for scientific and anatomical studies. A donation agreement is the document by which an individual wills his or her own body, or the body of a deceased loved one, to the Willed Body Program. Prior to his death, plaintiff's husband, James Conroy, executed a donation agreement with the Willed Body Program for the donation of his body. Following his death on January 25, 1999, plaintiff Evelyn Conroy, his wife of more than 40 years, arranged for delivery of his body to the University of California at Irvine (UCI) in an unembalmed and unautopsied state, as specified in the donation agreement.

Some months later, plaintiff read newspaper reports of irregularities in the UCI Willed Body Program. These reports alleged that the program had failed to maintain adequate records of the human cadavers donated for teaching and research and that donated bodies could not be located. Plaintiff contacted UCI to inquire about her husband's body. She was informed that there were no records of what had happened to her husband's body after it was brought to the UCI medical school and that the body's whereabouts were unknown. Plaintiff suffered emotional distress over these revelations and over UCI's failure to notify her, as had been promised by Chris Brown, the director of the Willed Body Program at the time her husband executed the donation agreement, about a ceremony at sea to scatter her husband's ashes.

In 2000, plaintiff instituted this action against defendant Regents of the University of California (the Regents) and others. The complaint alleged, inter alia, causes of action for negligence, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. The trial court granted the Regents' motion for summary judgment on these claims, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

On June 30, 1996, plaintiff Evelyn Conroy and her husband, James Conroy, each executed separate agreements to donate their bodies to the UCI Willed Body Program. James Conroy's agreement provided: "I here state that it is my wish to donate my body to the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, College of Medicine, University of California, Irvine (UCI), immediately following my death, for teaching purposes, scientific research, or such purposes as the said University or its authorized representative shall in their sole discretion deem advisable. My body, when delivered to UCI, will be unembalmed and in good condition. It is further understood and agreed that final disposition of my body by UCI shall be in accordance with the State Code."

James Conroy died on January 25, 1999. After plaintiff notified their children of his passing, someone called UCI to arrange for delivery of the body. Sometime in September 1999, plaintiff read an article in the Orange County Register describing misconduct at the UCI Willed Body Program and telephoned UCI to inquire about her husband's body. About a month later, Dr. Peter Lawrence, the interim director of the Willed Body Program, returned her call. Dr. Lawrence stated that Chris Brown, the prior director, had failed to keep proper records and that UCI did not know what happened to her husband's body after it was picked up. Dr. Lawrence subsequently sent a letter confirming that her husband's body had been delivered to UCI but added that there was no further record of what happened to it.

Plaintiff then instituted this action against various parties, including the Regents, which administer the 10-campus University of California system, and asserted claims for breach of implied contract, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, breach of special duty, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud and intentional deceit. In the complaint, plaintiff alleged that she, as the holder of the statutory right to control the disposition of her husband's body, had entrusted her husband's body to defendant under the Willed Body Program for purposes of teaching and research; that she was to receive her husband's remains "upon completion of the educational and research purposes" for which the donation was made; that plaintiff discovered in the fall of 1999 that defendant was using cadavers donated under the Willed Body Program for unauthorized purposes, including private for-profit tutoring classes and the transport and dismembering of bodies for profit; that defendant had failed to maintain records to ensure that the cadavers were used only for authorized purposes and to enable return of the remains to the appropriate family members; and that her husband's body "was misused in that the body was not used for medical research by the university." Plaintiff further alleged that she had suffered injuries to her health as well as emotional distress as a result of defendant's misconduct and sought compensatory and punitive damages.

The trial court sustained demurrers to the causes of action for breach of implied contract, breach of special duty, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Regents then moved for summary judgment on the remaining causes of action. In opposing the motion, plaintiff submitted a declaration recounting a telephone conversation she had had with Chris Brown, who was then the director of the Willed Body Program, before her husband executed the agreement to donate his body. Brown had told plaintiff that her husband's body would be cremated and the ashes scattered at sea after UCI had completed its research, that the family would be notified "so that they could take an active part in the ceremony scattering the ashes at sea," and that she and her husband's physician would be advised of the medical findings pertaining to her husband's body. But after reading about misconduct at the Willed Body Program in an article published in the Orange County Register following the donation of her husband's body, plaintiff contacted Dr. Lawrence, the program's interim director, and learned that although her husband's body had been brought to the medical school, its subsequent whereabouts were unknown.

Plaintiff also submitted evidence that Brown had owned or colluded with several companies that profited from questionable dealings involving cadavers donated to the Willed Body Program. For example, Brown and Jeffrey Frazier were partners in a company, Replica, Inc., which offered a gross anatomy class called "Medbound" to students interested in attending medical school. The class was held on UCI premises without authorization from UCI, using cadavers from the Willed Body Program, and photographs of cadavers from the program were placed in Replica's storefront window. Plaintiff contended that these facts had put the Regents on notice of problems with the Willed Body Program prior to her husband's death that should have been, but were not, corrected.

In addition, plaintiff submitted evidence that Brown had arranged for the removal of seven cervical spines from cadavers, which he and Frazier then sold via another company, University Health Services, to a doctor conducting research at an Arizona hospital in June 1999. A subsequent audit of the Willed Body Program ordered by the dean of the UCI medical school revealed that there were no records concerning the final disposition of 320 of the 441 bodies donated between January 1, 1995, and August 11, 1999.

The trial court granted the Regents' motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeal affirmed in a published opinion.

DISCUSSION

"Because this case comes before us after the trial court granted a motion for summary judgment, we take the facts from the record that was before the trial court when it ruled on that motion. [Citation.] ' "We review the trial court's decision de novo, considering all the evidence set forth in the moving and opposing papers except that to which objections were made and sustained." ' [Citation.] We liberally construe the evidence in support of the party opposing summary judgment and ...


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