Seattle Law Firm, Bergman Draper Oslund, Petitions Court to Stop Mandatory Autopsies of Dying Plaintiffs

Two Seattle Cases Highlight Unequal Treatment Before the Law

SEATTLE--()--Seattle law firm Bergman Draper Oslund has filed a petition with the King County Superior Court, asking the Court to amend its standing order requiring autopsies in all asbestos cases where the plaintiff dies during the pendency of the lawsuit and does not have religious objections to the procedure. The petition seeks to require King County Superior Court to conform to Washington law prohibiting autopsies without consent of the next of kin and prevent unconstitutional judicial scrutiny of litigants’ religious and ethical beliefs and disparate treatment of plaintiffs based on those beliefs. In the past, autopsies were required to determine if asbestos exposure resulted in mesothelioma, a rare, terminal lung cancer. Today, autopsies are no longer needed for a diagnosis of mesothelioma.

Matthew Bergman, Principal at Bergman Draper Oslund, said: “It is unconscionable that dying asbestos victims seeking accountability from the companies that poisoned them are forced to undergo autopsies as the price for seeking justice. Moreover, two plaintiffs in King County with the same illness and prognosis, asking for the same legal remedy which they are entitled to, could end up with two different decisions. The religious person may currently avoid an autopsy while the non-religious person, unfortunately, may be forced to undergo an autopsy. The Court must act to correct this injustice now.” In response to the petition, the asbestos companies argue that all plaintiffs who die during their case should be autopsied regardless of any religious or ethical objections they may hold and that failure to furnish consent should result in severe sanctions from the Court.

The petition, which will be heard April 27 in Washington State’s King County Superior Court, cites three reasons the existing regulation, Section 6.3 of the King County Asbestos Style Order, needs to be amended.

First, existing regulations conflict with Washington State autopsy statutes. Washington law provides unambiguous guidance on the rights of all Washington citizens regarding when and how autopsies are conducted, and the King County Court rule contradicts this. Second, the Court is being asked to intrude into one of our most basic and protected rights: religious freedom. Asking the Court to decide whose religious or ethical beliefs are worthier than others’ is unfair and discriminatory. Finally, Section 6.3 intrudes upon the attorney-client relationship by requiring plaintiffs’ counsel to advocate for autopsies in violation of their fiduciary duties. Not only does the Court unfairly intrude into plaintiffs deeply personal beliefs, but the Court is also forcing attorneys to advocate for procedures more aligned with the asbestos companies than with the victims exposed to asbestos.

These issues are very real and not some academic exercise. Said Bergman: “We are representing two plaintiffs before the Court right now, both suffering from mesothelioma. Two people with the same illness and prognosis, yet one is an orthodox Jew whom can easily decline the autopsy citing religious beliefs, while the other, so-called non-religious plaintiff is afforded no such freedom of choice and may be forced against her will to undergo an autopsy.”

For example, before the King County Court right now is the case of Dee Ann Trepanier. Ms. Trepanier doesn’t claim any religious objections to an autopsy, nor does she identify any overwhelmingly ethical considerations. Nevertheless, Ms. Trepanier strongly objects to being autopsied for personal reasons, and she has instructed her next of kin to exercise their right under Washington law not to authorize an autopsy. Unless Section 6.3 is amended, Ms. Trepanier faces unequal treatment because of her beliefs. The Court could decide that her very personal reasons to forego an autopsy are not valid.

In contrast, also before the King County Court is the case of Jack Akrish. Mr. Akrish strongly objects to being autopsied claiming autopsies are prohibited explicitly by his Jewish religion. As a result, Mr. Akrish will be free to be put to rest in full compliance with Jewish religious practice with no desecration of his body, whereas Ms. Trepanier may face sanctions by the Court for her own personal decision. The only difference between these two pending cases, and between the substantive rights conferred upon the parties, is the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs.

Today, science has all but removed autopsies as the way a mesothelioma diagnosis is reached. It is now time for the Court to amend Section 6.3 and update its practices to conform to existing Washington State law, respect religious freedom and personal beliefs that include not wanting an autopsy, and to allow an unfettered attorney-client relationship to exist without Court interference.

Contacts

Greatwork Communications
Mark Lamb, 425-985-6388
mark@greatworkcommunications.com