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Judges send teen’s emotional distress case back to trial court

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The Indianapolis teenager who saw his deceased mother’s remains being dragged out of their apartment on a mattress because she was extremely obese will have his claim for damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress against the coroner and city heard by the trial court.

In May 2009, then-13-year-old D.J. lived with his mother, Teresa Smith, and father, David Johnson Sr., in an apartment. Due to her weight, Smith was bedridden. D.J. called 911 after Johnson found Smith unresponsive. Police arrived and declared her dead. D.J. left the apartment at that time, but he later watched men drag Smith’s body out on the mattress, covered in a sheet, because the mortuary employees who were contracted by the coroner’s office mistakenly believed they didn’t have equipment that could transport her to the coroner’s office. A dirty carpet was tossed over her body on the back of the truck.

After contacting the coroner’s office and receiving instructions, the deputy coroner on the scene instructed Smith’s body be transported by a tow truck. Chief Deputy Coroner Alfarena Ballew, after being contacted by the deputy coroner about how to handle the transportation, did not look into whether Digger Mortuary Services could transport the body. She later discovered Digger had the equipment to do so.

D.J. filed a complaint in 2010, seeking damages for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress over the incident. The coroner’s office and city of Indianapolis sought summary judgment, which the trial court granted. The judge ruled the governmental actors were entitled to the law enforcement immunity pursuant to the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

The Court of Appeals reversed in part, finding the coroner’s office’s conduct in following its own rules does not fall within the definition of enforcement for purpose of immunity under the Act. By transporting Smith’s body to the office, the deputy coroner on scene was not compelling enforcement of a law against another person, but just following the law to enable a more detailed investigation, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

The judges found that summary judgment was appropriate for the city and coroner’s office on D.J.’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, but they found a genuine issue of fact regarding his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The question remains whether the coroner’s office’s conduct is so outrageous that it satisfies the reckless element of the tort.

“The Coroner’s Office conduct may have been reckless, disrespectful, and offensive but reasonable persons may differ on whether this conduct reaches the level of extreme and outrageous necessary to satisfy the tort,” she wrote.

 

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  • Is civility & common sense dead in Marion County?
    One wonders why the cornoner not rent a dead animal truck to haul the decedent? The question of anumus seems to be a fact question in both theories. Who trained the police and/or coroner to disregard basic courtesy. If the courts offer no relief, then the issue should be submitted to the voters. Were funeral home standards met in this case?

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  1. Based on several recent Indy Star articles, I would agree that being a case worker would be really hard. You would see the worst of humanity on a daily basis; and when things go wrong guess who gets blamed??!! Not biological parent!! Best of luck to those who entered that line of work.

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  4. Law school is social control the goal to produce a social product. As such it began after the Revolution and has nearly ruined us to this day: "“Scarcely any political question arises in the United States which is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question. Hence all parties are obliged to borrow, in their daily controversies, the ideas, and even the language, peculiar to judicial proceedings. As most public men [i.e., politicians] are, or have been, legal practitioners, they introduce the customs and technicalities of their profession into the management of public affairs. The jury extends this habitude to all classes. The language of the law thus becomes, in some measure, a vulgar tongue; the spirit of the law, which is produced in the schools and courts of justice, gradually penetrates beyond their walls into the bosom of society, where it descends to the lowest classes, so that at last the whole people contract the habits and the tastes of the judicial magistrate.” ? Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

  5. Attorney? Really? Or is it former attorney? Status with the Ind St Ct? Status with federal court, with SCOTUS? This is a legal newspaper, or should I look elsewhere?

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