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According to a decision released last week by New York State's highest court, your body parts aren't worth much, particularly after you're dead.

In  Colavito v. New York Organ Donor Network, Inc., the family of Peter Lucia sought to donate his kidneys to a friend, Robert Colavito, who suffered from end-stage renal disease.  Peter's spouse, Debra Lucia, consulted with a representative of the New York Organ Donor Network (NYODN) and was advised that the kidneys were "not a perfect match but they [were] good enough."  The appropriate organ donation forms were completed and a single kidney was air-lifted (upon Peter's death) to Miami, Florida where the Colavito transplantation procedure was to take place.

Unfortunately, upon examinaton of the organ, Colavito's physicians concluded that the kidney was an unacceptable match (due to an aneurysm of the renal artery).  When those doctors called to request the second kidney, they were informed by NYODN that the organ had been allocated to another patient earlier that same day.

Colavito's estate representative later commenced a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging "fraud," "conversion," and various violations of New York Public Health Law (which governs "anatomical gifts").  The District Court dismissed the case in its entirety, finding that neither fraud nor conversion could be applied to the facts of this case.  On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, that court agreed that a fraud claim had not been sufficiently alleged, but certified a series of "novel and important questions" to the New York State Court of Appeals.*  Chief among them was whether the intended recipient of a body part could state a cognizable claim for relief under New York law.  Ultimately, the answer was a resounding no.

"When you're dead, you're dead."

Although last week's decision didn't quite phrase it the way our subheading suggests, in effect, that was the message sent to the litigants in this case.  In paragraph after paragraph, the state's highest court repeatedly expressed its reluctance to ascribe "value" to a corpse.  Harking back to the 17th century and the writings of Sir Edward Coke--an English colonialist whose writings on the common law comprised the definitive legal authority for some three centuries--and citing to precedent dating back over 130 years, the court refused to recognize a "property right in a dead body."  Rather, family members have the limited entitlement "to possess the body for purposes of burying it, and a corresponding duty to do so."  While carve-outs (so to speak) have been established for a corpse's "unauthorized desecration" and "disposal," the court was unwilling to take a stab at additional exceptions.  As the court observed:

These decisions have in common the concept of a decent burial for an undesecrated body. We have been careful about characterizing causes of action that impose liability for violating these sensibilities. In all instances, we have disclaimed any reliance on a theory of property rights in a dead body. Later cases in New York have continued to recognize causes of action for improper autopsy or mutilation ..., but none have strayed meaningfully from the doctrine that there is no common law property right in a dead body.

Public Health Law Created No Liability

While New York's Public Health Law governs the grant of "anatomical gifts," and affords a "good-faith immunity" protection to medical professionals who participate in the process, there is arguably an exception for negligent or intentional acts or omissions found in the law.  Colavito's representative argued that the statute created a private cause of action or basis for seeking relief, while NYODN and others argued that the law was inapplicable to "donors or donees." 

Both the Second Circuit and the New York State Court of Appeals grappled with the Public Health Law's lack of clarity but, ultimately, our state's highest court skirted the interpretative dispute by finding that the intended recipient did not "need" the organ and thus failed to trigger a necessary condition precedent. In other words, although Colavito required a functioning kidney, since the organs in question were not a suitable match, no relief under this particular state law was available.

We believe the court should have directly addressed the questions presented.  Although it conceded that the precedent upon which it relied preceded the "age of transplants and other medical advances," it refused to "identify or forecast the circumstances in which someone may conceivably have actionable rights in the body or organ of a deceased person."  We can not fathom why.

Even Sir Edward Coke--an authority upon whom the court relied--is attributed with having written that, "Reason is the life of the law; nay, the common law itself is nothing else but reason ...." We humbly submit that the court's hesitance to interpret the law and confront issues of concern to a modern society flies in the face of reason.

For a copy of the Court of Appeals's decision in Colavito v. New York Organ Donor Network, Inc., please click on the following link: http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2006/2006_09320.htm