Guerra v. Arizona
Mistaken Notification of Death
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Difficulties in Identifying Victims Result in Failure
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Five passengers died from a single vehicle accident. Due to confusion caused by the extent of the passengers' injuries, Officers of the Arizona Department of Public Safety errantly advised the family of a surviving passenger their daughter had died. Following the discovery of the true identity of the deceased, the errantly advised family brought suit for negligence, negligent training and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Guerra v. Arizona
Arizona Supreme Court Oral Arguments - Mistaken Notification of Death
On July 18, 2010, five friends were traveling home to Arizona from California when their vehicle suffered a rear tire failure, causing it to roll. During the rollover, two female passengers were ejected; one of them was pronounced dead at the accident scene.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) responded to the accident scene. Once there, DPS officers discovered a purse near the deceased that contained Arizona driver's licenses for April Guerra and M.C., who were close friends and shared similar physical attributes. Due to the extent of their injuries, none of the passengers were positively identified at the accident scene. DPS released the body of the decedent to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office as "Jane Doe," and airlifted the four remaining passengers, three females and one male, to St. Joseph's Hospital.
DPS Sergeant Ortolano directed DPS Officers Ortiz and Guerrero, who were not present at the accident scene, to identify the four passengers being treated at the hospital. Volunteer DPS Chaplain Eddingfield subsequently joined the two officers at the hospital. Once at the hospital, Officers Ortiz and Guerrero interviewed the driver, Laura P. She self-identified and provided the officers with the names of the vehicle's other occupants, two of whom were M.C. and April.
Next, Officers Ortiz and Guerrero contacted the nurse who appeared to be in charge of the hospital's emergency care unit (the "charge nurse") to determine if the hospital had been able to identify any of the patients. After speaking with other hospital staff, the charge nurse told them two female patients had not yet been identified, but that she would find out their identities. After the charge nurse talked to family members and hospital staff, she concluded one of the female patients was G.M., meaning the remaining unidentified female patient was either M.C. or April.
When the charge nurse next spoke to the officers, she informed them April's family had advised her that April had a birth mark on her chest. After examining the remaining unidentified patient, the charge nurse concluded the patient did not have the described birth mark. During this time, Officer Ortiz contacted another DPS officer who was at the accident scene to inquire if the decedent had the birth mark. As a result of the severity of the injuries, however, the officer could not determine if the decedent bore the described birth mark. After obtaining more information regarding the passengers' clothing and other possible identifying marks, the charge nurse identified the remaining unidentified patient as M.C., and told the officers she was certain of her identification. Thereafter, by process of elimination, the officers determined the deceased passenger was April.
April's mother, Maria, and aunt were then placed in a hospital conference room where, pursuant to DPS's Next of Kin (NOK) Notification Manual, Officers Ortiz and Guerrero and Chaplain Eddingfield notified them of April's death. Following the notification, Chaplain Eddingfield told Maria she still needed to positively identify the body at the Medical Examiner's Office. Maria then called April's father, Jose, who was out of town, to inform him of their daughter's death.
The next day, April's family contacted the Medical Examiner's Office and was advised they would not be able to view the body until it was released to a funeral home. The family was also requested to have April's dental records forwarded to the Medical Examiner's Office to help with the identification. The Medical Examiner's Office informed the family that the body would be released for burial preparation on July 24, 2010.
Before releasing the body, however, the Medical Examiner's Office contacted Sergeant Ortolano and informed him that April's dental records did not match those of the decedent. Sergeant Ortolano, along with another DPS officer and a chaplain, visited the Guerra family to advise them of the development and gather more identifying information for April. The Guerra family informed the officers that April recently had her wisdom teeth removed, had the tragus of her left ear pierced, and stated again that April had a birth mark on her chest. The Guerra family also provided the officers with school identification cards for both April and M.C.
Officers then visited the hospital to examine the patient previously identified as M.C., and observed a small mark on the patient's chest and that her left ear tragus appeared to be pierced. While at the hospital, the officers spoke with M.C.'s family and informed them of the recent developments. When asked for further information to help positively identify the female patient, M.C.'s family stated they believed M.C. still had her wisdom teeth and they remembered she had a scar on her abdomen from an appendectomy. The patient, then believed to be M.C., did not have a scar on her abdomen.
The Guerra family then informed Sergeant Ortolano they had located a child identification card for April that contained her thumbprint. Officers matched the thumbprint of the patient at St. Joseph's to the thumbprint on April's identification card, and positively identified the person previously believed to be M.C. as April. On July 26, the deceased passenger was positively identified as M.C.
Read the entire document here: Guerra v. Arizona - Arizona Supreme Court Opinion
Read the news article here: Mistaken Notification of Death