George Jones died on November 21, 2003 at the age of 51 years. His body was found (alone) two days later in his Bronx apartment and taken to the city’s medical examiner’s office (the morgue) where an autopsy determined he’d died of natural causes. His mother, Lucille Jones, was notified and two of her other children went to the morgue for the grim purpose of identifying their brother.
Mrs. Jones then planned a wake and an open casket funeral for November 28th. On November 25th, though, when the funeral director showed up at the morgue to pick up the body, he was advised that the body of Mr. Jones was missing from the morgue. For more than a week, his whereabouts were unknown.
Eventually, on December 2nd, Mrs. Jones was informed that her son had been transported out of state and buried in a potter’s filed in Pennsylvania. It turned out that the morgue had negligently released the body of Mr. Jones to the wrong funeral home – one that had come to pick up the body of a different man (named Jorge Jones).
A proper funeral for George Jones was never held. He was exhumed and returned to New York but by then his body was badly decomposed and he had to be cremated on December 8th.
Mrs. Jones brought a lawsuit — Jones v. City of New York (Supreme Court, Bronx County; Index # 8009/05) — in which she claimed emotional distress damages caused by the city’s wrongful interference with her right to the immediate possession of her son’s body for burial and her ability to see him one last time and pay proper respect.
Liability against the city was determined in May 2008 in a motion for summary judgment decision and then, on February 13, 2009, after a two day trial solely on the issue of damages, the jury awarded Mrs. Jones $800,000 for her emotional distress pain and suffering.
As to her emotional distress damages, Mrs. Jones testified that:
- she was devastated upon learning that her son’s body was missing
- the cremation of her eldest son had a profound effect upon her
- normally a lively woman who loved to cook and play with her grandchildren, she was not herself for more than a year
- she lost more than 40 pounds
After the trial, the defendant argued that the damages award was excessive but the trial judge issued a decision on August 24, 2009 denying the motion. An appeal followed.
Now, in Jones v. City of New York (1st Dept. 2011), the appellate court has ruled that $800,000 is excessive and that there should be a reduction to $400,000.
Despite the substantial reduction by the appellate court, the $400,000 award is substantial and significant:
- The two prior appeals court decisions cited by the court ruling on damages in similar cases could have led the judges to slash the verdict even further. In Duffy v. City of New York (1st Dept. 1991), a $1,500,000 verdict was reduced to $250,000 for the negligent withholding of the news of the death of plaintiff’s son for 18 months, thereby depriving plaintiff of the right to take possession of the body for a proper burial. And in Emeagwali v. Brooklyn Hospital Center (2d Dept. 2009), pain and suffering damages for parents in the sum of $1,900,000 were reduced to $350,000 where the defendant improperly disposed the remains of a stillborn fetus, thereby depriving the plaintiffs of a chance to conduct a religious burial ceremony for their child and causing them emotional distress.
- Plaintiff offered no medical testimony at all substantiating her claims of emotional distress. She’d neither treated with any physician or therapist nor sought counseling from, or even described the events to, her pastor with whom she was very close. In Emeagwali v. Brooklyn Hospital Center, for example, there was extensive testimony from a physician as to the mother’s psychological injuries, including severe depression and inability to leave the house. The defense sought to make much of the lack of any similar corroborating testimony to support the emotional distress claims of Mrs. Jones but the jury was obviously unimpressed with that argument and convinced of the genuineness of plaintiff’s claims.
- In his closing argument, the defense attorney suggested that plaintiff was exaggerating her damages for financial gain and that plaintiff’s "sadness" may be worth no money at all, just a heartfelt apology.
- In her closing argument, plaintiff’s attorney Denise M. Dunleavy took umbrage with the defense suggestion that an apology is all that’s owed and advised the jurors that the verdict sheet they’d soon be handed to complete has a provision only for money damages, "the only way the city will give a heartfelt apology."