Corpses, Families, and Property Rights

The Washington Post has reported how the incinerated partial remains of many American soldiers were dumped in a Virginia landfill. I’m not an expert on Virginia law, the Federal Tort Claims Act, or the Feres doctrine, and so I have no idea if the close relatives of these soldiers have viable claims for the negligent infliction of emotional distress (though if any commenters want to weigh in with their informed opinions, I’m all ears), and if so, against whom. What I do know, however, is how these claims likely would have been handled a century ago, had the government not been the defendant.

Back then, close family members of a decedent were regarded as having a property right in the corpse of their loved one. If the corpse had been improperly handled, they could sue and recover for infringements of this right. Unauthorized dissections, autopsies, and burials at sea provided the grounds for most of these lawsuits.

It sounds strange, today, to say that someone has a property right in someone else’s corpse. It sounded strange then, too, but the property right was a legal fiction that functioned as a work-around to avoid the then-prevailing general bar against recovery for “pure” negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Since the barriers against these recoveries have fallen (to a degree), the need for a separate corpse-mishandling tort has more or less disappeared. Just as it is slowly ushering of the tort of insult out the door, the Second Restatement of Torts half-heartedly relates a distinct rule for corpse-mishandling claims (at section 868, which provides, “One who intentionally, recklessly or negligently removes, withholds, mutilates or operates upon the body of a dead person or prevents its proper interment or cremation is subject to liability to a member of the family of the deceased who is entitled to the disposition of the body”), but the drafters also observe that the cause of action is really one for emotional distress.  Underscoring the tort’s tenuous status, a tentative draft of the Second Restatement noted that it was “probably” desirable to maintain the separate treatment of corpse mishandling claims, “at least for this Restatement.”

(I promise to avoid connecting the news of the day with ancient tort theories from this point forward in my guest-blogging stint.  Unless, that is, Jennifer Aniston finally gets around to filing an alienation of affections lawsuit against Angelina Jolie, some celebrity gets sued for champerty, or Donald Trump finds himself on the receiving end of an ancient lights claim.)

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