After Maria de Jesus Arroyo was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest in the summer of 2010, her husband and children said their goodbyes and left her in the hands of hospital staff. When they saw her next at the funeral, her nose was broken and she had gashes and bruises on her face — injuries too severe to be covered up, despite the morticians' best efforts.
The outraged family sued the hospital, White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights, believing the hospital had mishandled the 80-year-old woman's body.
Now, they fear something far worse was behind the injuries: that she was still alive when she was placed in the hospital's freezer, and that she came to and struggled to get out before she ultimately froze to death.
On Wednesday, a California appellate court ruled that the family's medical malpractice lawsuit alleging that the hospital prematurely declared Arroyo dead and froze her alive can go forward, reviving a lawsuit that had earlier been thrown out by a trial court judge based on the statute of limitations. The case brought by Arroyo's husband and eight children now returns to Los Angeles County Superior Court.
An attorney for White Memorial said the hospital would fight the case in court. "In my opinion and based upon our thorough investigation, the allegations of the Arroyo family will not be proven," said attorney Richard J. Ryan.
Arroyo's family found her unconscious at home shortly before midnight on July 25, 2010. Not long after she was taken to White Memorial by ambulance, doctors said, their attempt to revive her was unsuccessful and declared her dead. Family members viewed her body, with no facial injuries. By the time Arroyo's body arrived at the mortuary to be prepared for burial, however, her face was battered and her body was face-down in the body bag, which was unzipped halfway.
The Arroyo family filed their first lawsuit in 2011, alleging that the body had been mutilated by mishandling after her death. During the litigation, an expert who reviewed Arroyo's injuries and testimony from hospital personnel concluded that the injuries most likely occurred while she was still alive.
"I do not believe these wounds could occur postmortem," New Jersey pathologist William Manion wrote in a court declaration. "There is only one apparent explanation: Mrs. Arroyo was alive when she was placed into a refrigerated unit within Defendant's morgue."
Having been placed in the freezer alive, Manion wrote in his opinion, "certainly caused Mrs. Arroyo terror and great suffering in her final minutes."
The family's attorney, Scott Schutzman, withdrew the mishandling lawsuit on the eve of trial and filed a second case in May 2012, alleging that the hospital had mistakenly declared Arroyo dead and frozen her while she was still alive. A Los Angeles County trial judge threw out that lawsuit, siding with the hospital's attorneys that the second suit was filed beyond the one-year statute of limitations after the family discovered Arroyo's injuries.
The suit was dismissed before the hospital responded to the allegation that Arroyo was prematurely declared dead.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal on Wednesday overturned the trial judge and revived the medical malpractice suit, finding that the family could not have known that Arroyo may have been prematurely declared deceased and frozen alive until the pathologist gave his expert opinion, in December 2011.
"Plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the Hospital morgue and when the disfiguring injuries occurred," the appellate justices wrote in their opinion.