In 2005, 17-year-old Jesse Shipley was killed in a car accident. His body was taken to the state morgue for an autopsy, then buried.
Two months later, his classmates saw a jar with a brain inside it on a morgue field trip. The label on the jar read Jesse Shipley.
Shipley's parents sued, and initially won a $1 million award from the state. The state appealed, and reduced the payout to $600,000.
This week, an appeals court ruled the state was in the right the whole time: If a body part was not illegally removed during an autopsy, the state can do whatever it wants with it, and the decedent's family never has to know. Even if they might have a religious objection.
"At most, a medical examiner's determination to return only the body without notice that organs and tissue samples are being retained is discretionary," Judge Eugene Pigott Jr. wrote for the majority according to an AP report from Michael Virtanen. "Therefore, no tort liability can be imposed for either the violation of the common-law right of sepulcher or public health law."
At the hearing, state lawyers argued that in addition to the legal mandate for this course of action, many family members had no desire to learn about the fate of their loved ones' body parts, with 82 percent saying they didn't want them back, Virtanen writes.
Judge Jenny Rivera dissented, saying the statute suggests notification must be given. There was also longstanding historical precedent for a family's right to custody of their deceased.
"This most human of acts has been repeated over the centuries in myriad and unique ways, and within our legal system the common law has recognized the next of kin's right to possession of the body for preservation and burial."
Marvin Ben-Aron, the Shipley's lawyer, says approximately 14 states have a law that requires some form of notification to a decedent's family, even if it's just in the form of a pamphlet, and that the majority is being naive about New Yorkers' knowledge of the existing statute
"[A family] would have had no idea that the medical examiner was retaining those things," he said. "[They] assume the organs are there."
The appeals court's ruling also means the Shipleys are no longer entitled to their financial award. Ben-Aron said he is reviewing whether there is any additional legal recourse that can be taken in the case.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.