New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SGAMBATI v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-013-002, Claim No. 90120, Motion No. M-62421


Claim for unlawful autopsy and unlawful removal and disposal of reproductive organs of four-year-old girl. Summary judgment motion granted dismissing claim holding that (1) step-father lacked standing to sue for emotional distress; (2) public policy barred claims for emotional distress arising from surrender of the body to the coroner, the autopsy itself and dissection of decedent's brain tissue and (4) the hospital's failure to discover the origin of reproductive organs before accepting them and then discarding them did not constitute outrageous conduct or breach of duty of care. Claim was timely filed after Claimants' discovery of the autopsy and organ removal.

Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant's attorney:
Defendant's attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: PATRICIA M. BORDONARO, ESQ. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
February 27 , 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


On July 2, 1988 Christine Ellis Sgambati, a four-year-old girl, was seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident. She died two days later at the SUNY Health Science Center, a facility owned and operated by Defendant. Claimants are Christine's mother, Alix Sgambati, and Ms. Sgambati's husband, Daniel Sgambati. They allege that they told Christine's doctors as her death was approaching, that they did not want an autopsy performed on her body and that they would not consent to the donation of her organs.

In this action they claim that Defendant intentionally and negligently inflicted emotional distress upon them by (1) releasing Christine's body to the Onondaga County Medical Examiner's office for an autopsy and dissection; (2) taking custody of brain tissue and reproductive organs which had been removed from Christine's body at the time of the autopsy; and (3) improperly and illegally disposing of the tissue and organs.

Defendant concedes, for the purposes of this motion, that the medical examiner performed an autopsy on Christine's body and that the Health Science Center may have received some of Christine's body parts from the medical examiner. In its motion for summary judgment, Defendant argues that I must dismiss the claim because (1) it was not timely filed; (2) Daniel Sgambati is not a proper claimant; (3) the emotional distress claims are barred by public policy; and (4) the evidence fails to support a cause of action.

On November 15, 2000, I considered the following papers in connection with Defendant's motion:

1. Notice of Motion

2. Affirmation in Support and Annexed Exhibits

3. Defendant's Memorandum of Law

4. Affidavit in Opposition and Annexed Exhibits

5. Claimants' Memorandum of Law

6. Reply Affirmation

Although I do not agree with all of Defendant's assertions, I agree that summary judgment is appropriate.

A. Timeliness

To be timely, a claim alleging negligence or intentional tort must be served and filed within 90 days after accrual. But a claimant can extend the time for filing and serving the claim to one year in the case of intentional tort, or two years in the case of negligence, by serving and filing a notice of intention within 90 days after the claim's accrual (Court of Claims Act §10[3], §10[3-b]).

In its attack upon the timeliness of the claim, Defendant points out that the county medical examiner performed Christine's autopsy and removed her reproductive organs in July 1988, more than five years before Claimants served and filed their notice of intention and more than six years before Claimants served and filed[1] the claim. Because more than 90 days elapsed from these critical events to service and filing of the notice of intention or claim, Defendant argues that the action is untimely.[2] I disagree

Generally, a claim accrues for purposes of the Court of Claims Act when the damages caused by the tortious conduct are reasonably ascertainable (Augat v State of New York, 244 AD2d 835, 836, lv denied 91 NY2d 814; Waterman v State of New York, 19 AD2d 264, 266, affd sub nom. Williams v State of New York, 14 NY2d 793). A claim for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress accrues, at the earliest, when the injured party learns of the defendant's outrageous conduct and suffers consequent emotional distress, because before that time, distress and damage are lacking (see, Augat v State of New York, supra; Augeri v Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, 225 AD2d 1105, 1106; Dana v Oak Park Marina, 230 AD2d 204, 209-211).

In the present case, Defendant has not established that Claimants knew, more than 90 days before they served and filed their notice of intention in November 1993, about the alleged mishandling of Christine's body. Nor have they shown that Claimants knew of this information more than one year before they served and filed their claim in September 1994. To the contrary, Claimants' deposition testimony indicates that they first learned of the allegedly tortious conduct in late September 1993. Defendant has not pointed to any evidence that conclusively refutes those assertions. This part of Defendant's motion is therefore denied.[3]

B. Standing

The challenge to Mr. Sgambati's standing is more compelling.

There is no doubt in my mind that the anguish that a step-parent experiences as a result of the mutilation of his deceased step-child's body can be as devastating and enduring as the grief experienced by the child's natural parents. But only the decedent's surviving spouse and next of kin may bring an action for emotional distress and other damages arising from an unauthorized autopsy (see, Darcy v Presbyterian Hosp. in the City of New York, 202 NY 259, 262, 263, rearg denied 203 NY 547; Matter of Mgurdichian, 30 AD2d 732, lv denied 22 NY2d 648; Beller v City of New York, 269 App Div 642, 643; see also, Gostkowski v Roman Catholic Church, 262 NY 320, 325; Brown v Broome County, 8 NY2d 330, 333). The term "next of kin" contemplates persons entitled to share in the decedent's property under the law of intestate descent (EPTL 2-1.1, 1-2.5). It does not include step-parents or the spouses of the decedent's parents (see, EPTL 4-1.1[a][4]; 38 NY Jur 2d, Decedents Estates, §148 at 308).

While Mr. Sgambati was the husband of Christine's natural mother at the time of the accident, he was not Christine's natural parent and never adopted her. Therefore, I agree with Defendant that Mr. Sgambati has no standing to recover damages for emotional distress. His claim must be dismissed.

C. Public Policy

I also agree that parts of the claim must be dismissed on public policy grounds.

The interests of the public are generally best served when public officials do not have to fear potential tort liability for emotional distress they may cause while doing their jobs. Therefore, public servants cannot be held liable for temporal harm they inflict while discharging their official duties in a lawful manner (see, Brandt v Winchell, 3 NY2d 628; Smith v Helbraun, 38 Misc 2d 136, 143; VanBuskirk v Bleiler, 46 AD2d 707; Lauer v City of New York, 240 AD2d 543, 544; Augat v State of New York, 244 AD2d 835, supra at 837).

It is clear to me that public policy bars any action for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress arising from (1) Defendant's release of Christine's body to the county medical examiner, or (2) the assistance Defendant allegedly provided the medical examiner in analyzing her brain tissue. The county medical examiner had jurisdiction to investigate the cause of Christine's death by performing an autopsy, even though Mrs. Sgambati did not consent to the procedure (County Law §§673[1][a], 674[2], 674[3][a]; Brown v Broome County, 8 NY2d 330, supra; Banks v United Hosp., 275 AD2d 623, 624; Harris-Cunningham v Medical Examiner of N.Y. County, 261 AD2d 285). When the medical examiner asserted his jurisdiction, it was Defendant's official duty to release Christine's body to his custody and to assist him, if requested, in tests or analyses he believed necessary to investigate the cause of her death (County Law §§674[1], 675; Public Health Law §4210[2]).[4] Therefore, Defendant cannot be held liable for these activities.

But it is not clear that Defendant's employees were engaging in "official conduct" when they took possession of Christine's reproductive organs from the medical examiner's office and then disposed of them. Although the medical examiner characterized the removal and "donation" as an "extension[] of the autopsy," his testimony and the testimony and sworn statements of Defendant's agents establish that he was actually attempting to facilitate medical research being performed at Defendant's facility. The research seems to fall within the general mission of the urology laboratory where it was apparently going to be performed. But there was disagreement among Defendant's agents as to whether this was official research authorized by the hospital or a personal project of a lab manager. Questions of fact therefore preclude me from deciding whether public policy would call for the dismissal of this part of the claim (cf., Oliver v Cuttler, 968 F Supp 83, 92-93 [EDNY 1997]).

D. Adequacy of the Evidence Supporting the Claims

Even if accepting and disposing of the reproductive organs was not an official function of Defendant's urology lab, I would nevertheless have to dismiss the claim. Such conduct does not, in these circumstances, support a claim for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. An intentional infliction claim must be supported by proof of conduct that is "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community" (Murphy v American Home Products Corp., 58 NY2d 293, 303; Fischer v Maloney, 43 NY2d 553, 557-558). A negligent infliction claim requires proof that the alleged tort-feasor negligently mishandled a corpse or bodily organs (Dobisky v Rand, 248 AD2d 903, 905). The evidence in this case is not sufficient to satisfy either criterion.

Defendant asserts, without contradiction from Claimants, that if the reproductive organs were delivered to the Health Science Center, they were identified only by autopsy number. Construing the facts in a light most favorable to Claimants, it appears that the urology lab, which allegedly took custody of the organs, could have used the autopsy number to determine that the organs came from Christine and that the medical examiner had removed them without her mother's consent.[5]

The problem, from Claimants' standpoint, is that the urology lab had no reason to conduct such an investigation. There is no evidence that the urology lab knew, or had reason to believe, that the reproductive organs had been removed from a body without consent or authority, or came from a former Health Sciences Center patient. To the contrary, since it is a crime to dissect or remove body parts without legal authority (see, Public Health Law §§4210-a, 4216), the lab had every reason to believe that the medical examiner was acting lawfully when it provided the organs.

In these circumstances, Defendant's failure to determine the source of the organs cannot be regarded as "outrageous" or "intolerable" conduct sufficient to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (cf., Sarlo v Fairchild Sons, 256 AD2d 322 [releasing cremated remains to wrong family member]; Lauer v City of New York, 240 AD2d 543, supra at 544 [failing to amend death certificate to change cause of death from homicide to natural causes]). Nor can it constitute a breach of a duty of care. It would place an unreasonable burden on the urology lab to require it to independently verify the origin and status of each organ or tissue sample it received when it had no reason to believe that the organ had been obtained illicitly (cf., Nicoletta v Rochester Eye and Human Parts Bank, 136 Misc 2d 1065). Accordingly, the claims relating to the acceptance and disposal of the reproductive organs are dismissed.

E. Conclusion

The Court is not unmindful of the profound suffering Claimants have endured. Christine's death was tragic. The unauthorized donation of her reproductive organs needlessly prolonged and compounded her family's pain. If the Onondaga County Medical Examiner knew that he was acting against the Sgambatis' wishes when he removed Christine's reproductive organs, his disregard for their feelings was callous and reprehensible. But in the absence of evidence that the Health Science Center urology lab knew or had reason to believe that the organs were improperly removed, I must dismiss the claim.

February 27 , 2001
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

  1. [1]This claim predated the 1995 amendments to Court of Claims Act §10, which eliminated the requirement that notices of intention be filed with the Clerk of the Court of Claims (see, L 1995, ch 466).
  2. [2]Defendant preserved this defense in its answer (see, Court of Claims Act §11[c]).
  3. [3]The motion must also be denied to the extent that it argues that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. Claims for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress could not be "truthfully alleged" until Claimants learned in September 1993 about the alleged mishandling of Christine's body (see, Augeri v Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, 225 AD2d 1105, supra at 1106).
  4. [4]It should be emphasized that this is not a case where Claimants are alleging that the autopsy or dissection was contrary to Christine's religious beliefs (see, Public Health Law §4210-c). Nor is this a case where Claimants are alleging that Defendant entered into a special relationship with them with respect to the postmortem handling of Christine's body (see, Lauer v City of New York, 95 NY2d 95, 102-103; Stonecipher v Bossuot-Lundy Funeral Home, 238 AD2d 946).
  5. [5]The record suggests that the medical records were located in three or four discrete locations. The county medical examiner's records indicate that Christine's physician, Dr. Ratner, told the medical examiner's office on July 3, 1988 that Christine's organs were not to be transplanted or donated. Defendant's records relating to its evaluation of Christine's brain tissue in October 1988 suggest that the pathology lab knew the identification number that the county medical examiner had assigned to Christine's autopsy. This was the same autopsy number that the urology lab noted on its intake form when it logged Christine's reproductive organs into its inventory in September 1988. Defendant probably also had a statutory right to examine the medical examiner's records to determine the source of the organs (Public Health Law §4212[b][2]).