Court Rules that Hospitals Cannot Hold Loved Ones’ Bodies Ransom to Force Compliance

Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ) welcomes the ruling handed down by the Supreme Court on August 28, 2018 in the matter of Nadine Evans v The University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) where the Court establishes that hospitals cannot refuse to issue a certificate of cause of death and hold the bodies of families loved ones ransom in order to force families to consent to a secret, unsupervised post mortem.

Hospital illegally held body after family alleged mistreatment in care

This ruling stems from a claim instituted by the legal team at Jamaicans for Justice on behalf of Nadine Evans, who was denied access to the body of her daughter, Carrell White, who died in December 2017 while an inpatient at the University of the West Indies Hospital.

Ms. Evans and other family members of Ms. White alleged that that Ms. White had received substandard medical care while at the UHWI, which contributed to her death. Accordingly, when the UHWI ordered that a post mortem be done to determine the cause of death, Ms. Evans exercised her right to request that an independent pathologist be present to observe the post mortem on her behalf and provide a neutral medical judgement on why she truly died.

The Hospital refused the request, indicating that it does not allow independent observers for post mortems that were not for Coroner’s cases, and required Ms. Evans to consent to their unsupervised post mortem in order to receive her daughter’s body. Ms. Evans refused, and the Hospital in turn refused to release the body of her daughter.

For almost seven months, the UHWI, with no factual or legal authority to refuse the release of the body of Carell White, held her body ransom in a bid to bully Ms. Evans into signing a document giving UHWI sole authority to conduct a post mortem behind closed doors and without any external oversight.

Despite numerous attempts by Ms. Evans and interventions by Jamaicans for Justice, who suggested several experts who could conduct post-mortems for the government’s forensic lab, the UWHI rebuffed efforts to find a middle ground and remained steadfast in its refusal to allow any external medical professionals to conduct or observe the post mortem and refusing to allow the release of the body.

For almost seven months, Ms. Evans was denied the opportunity to bury her daughter and lay her to rest in a safe and dignified way because of the inhumane stance taken by UHWI. It is deeply concerning that the UWHI had to be taken to court by Jamaicans for Justice simply to allow the family to ensure that someone could get credible answers to the death of Ms. White because the family disagreed with UHWI’s account.

Court judgement sets precedent on families’ rights to the bodies of their loved ones

The judgment sets a crucial precedent to guide hospitals in how they engage families around the conduct of post mortems and the issuance of certificates of cause of death. It highlighted that the UHWI has no legal basis to refuse to release the body of Carell White to her mother and ordered the immediate release. The ruling made it clear that hospitals cannot hold someone’s dead relative as ransom to force them to give consent to a privately conducted post mortem.

This court ruling also establishes that hospitals cannot force families to consent to a post mortem, as a precondition for the issuance of the certificate of cause of death. They must comply with Section 35 of Registration (Birth and Deaths Act) which states that while in these circumstances the hospital has the duty to issue a certificate indicating the cause of death, conducting a private post mortem is not mandatory to do so. To satisfy their obligations under the Act, the hospital need only have the medical practitioner who attended Ms. White to make a declaration in writing as to why the certificate of cause of death cannot be obtained and submit it to the Registrar.

The Hospital’s legal obligations would have been completely fulfilled upon sending the declaration to the Registrar and allowing the continuation of the process between the Registrar and the Medical Officer who would ultimately issue the certificate of cause of death. The court established clearly that there was no reason for the Hospital to remain in possession of Ms. White’s body where it knew it was not able to issue the certificate of cause of death.

Across Jamaica, powerful medical institutions like UHWI continue to bully poor families into signing away their rights by withholding the bodies of their loved ones until the families consent to the hospital’s terms. It is deeply concerning that Jamaicans for Justice had to bring a case against UHWI for them to take any steps towards remedying this situation.

Executive Director of Jamaicans for Justice, Rodje Malcolm expressed his frustration with the prevalence of these situations while highlighting the importance of this Court decision.

He added that “This Court decision protects the rights of Jamaican families and it was not only a victory for Jamaicans for Justice and the family of Carrell White, but for Jamaicans nationwide who are in similar disputes. JFJ has received other reports of these practices, which is why we found it necessary to file this lawsuit. In many instances, if someone does not understand the law or does not have the resources to get a lawyer, some hospitals deny their rights to get truthful and credible answers about their loved one’s deaths. This Court ruling makes it clear that hospitals have no right to do this and has set precedent that protects families in situations like Ms. Evan’s.”