By Bay City News Service
An appellate court has overturned a ruling in San Mateo County Superior Court that held the coroner's office liable for retaining the heart of a 23-year-old man who died unexpectedly in 2006.
San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault Wednesday (May 26) expressed his sympathy toward the Picon family for the loss of Nicholas Picon, but said the coroner's office followed the law when they removed his heart to determine his cause of death.
"The case had no merit to begin with," Foucrault said. "There was no evidence to prove (the) allegations."
Nicholas Picon died at his home in the shower in October 2006. The coroner's office brought his body to the county morgue, where forensic pathologist Dr. Peter Benson began the autopsy process, according to Deputy County Council Glenn Levy.
Benson soon noticed a structural defect in Picon's heart and ordered additional tests to determine whether the defect was the cause of death, Levy said.
Before the coroner's office released Picon's body back to his family, Benson decided to retain his heart for further investigation.
A few weeks later, however, Picon's mother Isolina Picon contacted the coroner's office and asked whether any organs or body parts had been retained, Levy said.
The coroner's office confirmed the heart had been retained to investigate the cause of death, but she said she hadn't known that and "demanded the heart be released back to her," Levy said.
The coroner's office complied, but in October 2007 she filed a lawsuit against San Mateo County, the coroner's office and Benson alleging that the retention of the heart by the forensic pathologist was not authorized by law, according to Levy.
After a San Mateo County Superior Court judge denied the county's motions to dismiss the case and set a trial date for January 2010, the county requested the Court of Appeal review the case, Levy said.
According to Levy, state law does not require notification for retention of organs for purposes of investigating the cause of death or confirmation of the findings.
In an unusual move, the Court of Appeal agreed to hear the case before it went to trial, and was briefed on the case on May 11.
Then, on Tuesday (May 25), the appellate court effectively dismissed the case, Levy said.
Despite the fact that the Court of Appeal agreed with the county's stance, Levy said it's important to remember the tragedy of the case: that Isolina Picon lost her son.
"The county and coroner's office are sorry for her loss," Levy said. "It's a tragedy and it's sad."
Levy also pointed out that after Isolina Picon claimed she hadn't been notified that her son's heart had been retained, the coroner's office changed its policy to notify families if organs are being retained before the body is released to the family.