Family deserves compensation for coroner’s mix-up in body ID, attorney tells jurors – San Bernardino Sun

An attorney for a father and daughter who in 2017 buried a stranger thought to be their loved one, due to an Orange County Coroner’s Office mix-up, said Monday, April 18, his clients deserve financial compensation — not just an apology — for the devastating error.

“When you make a mistake you own up to it,” attorney  V. James DeSimone said during closing arguments, capping the end of a civil trial in Orange County Superior Court that spanned several days over three weeks. “You don’t just apologize.”

DeSimone represents Frank J. Kerrigan, 86, of Wildomar and his 60-old-daughter, Carole Meikle of Silverado.

The plaintiffs allege in a civil lawsuit the Coroner’s Office engaged in intentional misrepresentation for erroneously informing them Frankie Kerrigan, who was homeless and suffering from schizophrenia at the time, had been found dead behind a Fountain Valley Verizon store on May 6, 2017, and identified through fingerprints.

That turned out to be untrue.

Eleven days after a funeral for Kerrigan’s son, Frankie, the family discovered he was still alive. When fingerprint results came back, it was determined they were those of John Dickens, a 54-year-old Kansas native who had died from an enlarged heart and cardiovascular disease.

The Coroner’s Office had entered fingerprints from the body found near the Verizon store into its LiveScan system, an inkless, digital process used to submit fingerprints electronically to local law enforcement agencies, the California Department of Justice, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations.

The results returned to the Coroner’s Office, which is operated by the Sheriff’s Department, contained an identical six-digit numerical code identifying Dickens as the dead man. However, the codes in the Coroner’s Office computers remained unchecked until May 31, when Frankie Kerrigan’s family notified the agency that he was alive.

Deputy coroners lacked knowledge about how the LiveScan system worked and the purpose of the identification code, Bruce Lyle, assistant chief deputy coroner who now serves as assistant director of the Orange County Crime Lab, testified during the trial.

DeSimone told jurors the evidence is overwhelming to show that the Coroner’s Office was negligent in misrepresenting to the plaintiffs that Frankie Kerrigan was dead without first positively identifying him through fingerprints.

“Frankie Kerrigan should have been a John Doe,” he said. “To just ship the body to the family is wrong and falls below the standard of care.”

Attorney Norm Watkins, who is representing the county, said the initial misidentification of the body was clearly a mistake, but there no intention to deceive the plaintiffs.

“They didn’t just go off willy-nilly,” he added. “There are no grounds to believe that to be true.”

Watkins said the real motivation for the lawsuit isn’t grief, but greed.

Jurors were expected to begin deliberations Monday afternoon.

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