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Does the State Have a Duty to Inform You of Your Child’s Death?

Every parent fears getting a call from law enforcement or another government official informing them of their child’s death. But what happens when a parent never gets that call and spends years wondering what happened to their son or daughter? A recent Tennessee personal injury lawsuit addressed this sad question.

Father Learns of Daughter’s Murder 11 Years Later, Sues Medical Examiner

The circumstances of this case are truly devastating. In March 2002, a young woman was found dead under a bridge in Nashville. Police determined she had been strangled to death by a homeless man.

The victim had led a tragic life. According to court records, she had been adopted as an infant. Her adoptive parents later divorced, and she was sexually abused by her mother and her new boyfriend. She later went to live with her father, but after a long history of drug abuse, her father kicked her out of the house when she was 19. The victim did not see her father again after 2000.

While living in a homeless shelter, the victim became pregnant. She ended up moving to Camden, Tennessee, to live with her fiancée’s family. The victim was especially close to her fiancée’s mother. At one point, she asked the mother to assume legal custody of her child. The victim and her fiancée had moved to Nashville to look for new jobs when she was murdered.

Davidson County, which includes Nashville, contracts its medical examiner services to a private contractor. Upon receiving the victim’s body, the medical examiner attempted to call the victim’s father as next-of-kin. According to an investigator for the medical examiner’s office, a woman claiming to be the father’s wife answered the phone and denied having any children. The investigator said she expected this response based on discussions with the fiancée’s mother about the estranged relationship between the victim and her father. Based on this information, the chief medical examiner decided to release the victim’s body to the fiancée’s mother, reasoning that she was the closest think to next-of-kin given that she had custody of the victim’s minor child.

Meanwhile, the father said he did not learn of his daughter’s fate until late 2013. He subsequently sued the medical examiner for failing to notify him of her death as required by Tennessee law. He further alleged interference with his legal right to bury his daughter and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The funeral home contracted by the fiancée’s mother to conduct the victim’s burial was also named as a defendant.

A federal judge dismissed the father’s case on April 8 of this year. The judge said the medical examiner’s office acted “in good faith” when it attempted to locate and contact the father about his daughter’s death. As for the decision to treat the fiancée’s mother as next-of-kin, the judge said that was appropriate given the “special relationship” between the two women and the fact that at the time, “no other individual was claiming to have a right to decide how to dispose of [the victim’s] body.” Finally, the judge said the father could not sustain a claim for infliction of emotional distress because there was no evidence the defendants owed him a “duty of care” or acted in a reckless manner.

Get Help from a Knoxville Personal Injury Attorney

While the facts of this case are terrible, it does underline the emotional trauma that occurs when a parent—even an estranged parent—loses a child. If you have lost a family member or suffered emotional distress due to someone else’s negligence, you should seek advice from an experienced Tennessee personal injury lawyer right away. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton, to speak with someone today.

Source: Fletcher v. West Tennessee Funeral Associates, LLC, Civil No. 14-2375 (M.D. Tenn. April 8, 2016)

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