Plaintiffs Entitled to Damages Re: City’s Failure to Timely Notify Plaintiffs of the Death of a Family Member
The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Tom, affirmed Supreme Court’s rulings re: allegations that (1) the City of New York failed to timely notify plaintiffs of the death of a family member (a 36-hour delay in violation of the right of sepulcher) and (2) the City negligently performed an autopsy, which violated the family’s religious beliefs. The First Department determined plaintiffs were entitled to summary judgment on the “failure to timely notify” causes of action, and the City was entitled to summary judgment dismissing the “negligent performance of an autopsy” cause of action (by statute, in the absence of receipt of an objection on religious grounds, the City has the authority to conduct an autopsy without first seeking consent from the family). With respect to the “failure to timely notify” causes of action, the court wrote:
The first cause of action alleges that as a result of the failure to receive timely notification of the death of Darden Binakaj, plaintiffs sustained emotional injury. The second cause of action specifies that mental anguish resulted from defendants’ interference with the family’s right to the immediate possession of decedent’s body. Thus, these causes of action can be read to advance a claim for violation of the common-law right of sepulcher. * * *
While emotional distress resulting from injury inflicted on another is not compensable under New York law, as the City argues, the emotional harm alleged in this matter is the direct result of the breach of a duty to timely communicate information about a death to plaintiffs themselves … . In Johnson v State of New York (37 NY2d 378 ), the plaintiff alleged emotional harm as a result of receiving a message that negligently reported the death of her mother, a patient in a state hospital, when in fact the person who had died was another patient with the identical name. The Court of Appeals sustained recovery for emotional suffering on the reasoning that the particular circumstances were associated with ” genuine and serious mental distress . . . which serves as a guarantee that the claim is not spurious'” … . The Court noted that the false message informing the plaintiff of the death and the resulting psychological injury were within the orbit of duty owed by the hospital to the patient’s daughter and that she was entitled to recover for breach of that duty … . Contrary to the City’s contention, Johnson holds that in the case of negligent communications involving the death of a family member, damages are recoverable for purely emotional injury, expressly distinguishing negligent communication that causes emotional suffering from that sustained “solely as a result of injuries inflicted directly upon another, regardless of the relationship” … . The unavoidable implication is that such communication is a ministerial function, as opposed to the discretionary exercise envisioned by the City for which no recovery is available. While the injury alleged in this matter resulted from an untimely rather than false communication, the City’s contention that it cannot be held liable for negligence in informing the plaintiffs about the death of their loved one finds no support under Johnson.
The second cause of action alleges that as a result of the untimely notification, which deprived plaintiffs of any opportunity to state their objection to the autopsy, the City interfered with their right to immediate possession of decedent’s body. As this Court stated in Melfi v Mount Sinai Hosp. (64 AD3d 26, 31 [1st Dept 2009]), “the common-law right of sepulcher gives the next of kin an absolute right to the immediate possession of a decedent’s body for preservation and burial, and . . . damages will be awarded against any person who unlawfully interferes with that right or improperly deals with the decedent’s body.” Damages are awarded as compensation to the next of kin for the “solely emotional injury” experienced as a result of the interference with their ability to properly bury their decedent … . * * *
As this Court stated:
“[F]or a right of sepulcher claim to accrue (1) there must be interference with the next of kin’s immediate possession of decedent’s body and (2) the interference has caused mental anguish, which is generally presumed. Interference can arise either by unauthorized autopsy or by disposing of the remains inadvertently or, as in this case, by failure to notify the next of kin of the death” … .
The City states no compelling reason to depart from clear precedent to bar a cause of action for loss of sepulcher in this instance … . Rugova v City of New York, 2015 NY Slip Op 06754, 1st Dept 9-8-15