Jury awards $58M in lawsuit against body donation firm

PHOENIX — A civil jury has awarded $58 million Tuesday to 10 people who alleged a now-closed body donation facility mishandled the donated remains of their relatives and deceived them about how the body parts would be used.

The trial against Stephen Gore, owner of the Biological Resource Center of Arizona, ended with jurors finding in favour of 10 of 21 plaintiffs, awarding $8 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.

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An attorney for donor families said he believes jurors did not rule in favour of 11 other plaintiffs because they didn’t testify at trial.

Gore’s business was accused of fraud by claiming the donated bodies would be used for medical research, when it knew some of the remains would be sold for military testing, such as crashes and explosions. A woman whose son’s remains were sold for military testing was awarded $6.5 million.

Donor families also said they were promised the cremated remains of relatives and received boxes with what they thought were their loved ones, only to later discover the bodies were sold to third parties or were still at the facility.

The families contended they were weren't told the bodies would be used in ways they would not have approved. Jurors were shown the business' price list, showing, for instance, that a torso without a head sold for $4,000.

Timothy O’Connor, an attorney for Gore, declined to comment on the verdict. He had argued that clients signed consent forms granting permission to dissect donated bodies, and that it was legal for the facility to make a profit.

Gwendolyn Aloia, who was awarded $5.5 million, said the verdict shows that the body donation industry needs more government regulation.

Her husband's remains were donated after his 2013 cancer death, but she testified she wouldn’t have allowed it had she known his remains would be sold for profit. She doubts the cremated remains that she was given were his.

Lawyers representing the donor families had asked for $13 million for each plaintiff but acknowledged ahead of the verdict that Gore wasn’t likely to be able to pay a large award. They said they brought the case to trial to hold Gore and his business accountable.

Cadaver donation companies distribute remains to universities, medical device manufacturers and drug companies. The companies pay the associated costs and use the bodies for medical education and research, and families save burial or cremation costs.

Gore’s business was raided in January 2014 by FBI employees wearing hazardous-material suits and breathing through respirators. A retired FBI agent testified that body parts were piled on top of each other and had no identification.

He said he saw one torso that had its head removed and a smaller head sewn on, comparing the discovery to a character from Frankenstein. The retired agent also said the horrific discoveries during the raid led some FBI employees to undergo counselling.

Gore pleaded guilty in October 2015 to a felony charge for his role in mishandling the donated parts.

Though Gore denied the allegations in the lawsuit, he acknowledged when pleading guilty to illegally conducting an enterprise that his firm provided vendors with human tissue that was contaminated and used the donations counter to the wishes of the donors.

In a letter to the sentencing judge, Gore said he should have been more involved in the supervision of his employees and could have been more open about the donation process.

Michael Burg, an attorney representing donor families, said the industry will learn from the verdict that there are consequences for deceptive practices. "It sends a message to others that don’t want to be honest or trick people into doing this," Burg said.

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This story has been corrected to reflect the amount of punitive damages that were awarded was $50 million, not $10 million.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.

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