The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

March 31, 2012

Family sues over wrong body at viewing

EBENSBURG — The family of a suburban Johnstown man is suing a Richland Township funeral home and Memorial Medical Center over a mixup in bodies that was not discovered until the day of the deceased man’s viewing.

The lawsuit was filed in Cambria County Court by the family of Richard Tkacik – Marlene Tkacik of Geis Avenue, Geistown, the widow, and the couple’s two daughters, Pamela Clark of Johnstown and Bridget Lowery of New Florence.

They are represented by Pittsburgh attorney Kevin Lomupo.

The Tkacik family is suing for unspecified compensation of more than $50,000 for emotional distress, depression and humiliation.

Joe Marsaglia, an instructor and dean of faculty and students at the Pennsylvania Institute of Mortuary Science, said such incidents are rare.

But when they occur, “it can be very traumatic for a family walking into a visitation room and saying, ‘Who’s that?’ ”

Memorial spokeswoman Amy Bradley declined comment.

“We’re unable to comment on cases in litigation,” she said.

William G. Harris, owner of the funeral home, said, “In the 40 years as a licensed funeral director and 31 years of owning my own funeral home, this is the first time I have encountered this situation.”

Saying that he tries to treat everyone as if they were a member of his own family, Harris added, “The fact, or any faults, pertaining to this case will come out in time. I will only say now that no one was wrongly buried or cremated, and the family incurred no costs. I think the good people of this community know me and the reputation of my firm.”

A lawsuit describes one side of a situation.

Richard Tkacik died Nov. 23 at the hospital, and his family contacted Harris Funeral Home to handle the arrangements. At a meeting that day with the funeral home, arrangements were made to have afternoon and evening visitation on Nov. 25 and then a funeral Mass and burial on Nov. 26, the family said in the lawsuit.

The family took clothing to the funeral home on Nov. 24 to be placed on Tkacik’s body, but it was not until the following day that they first saw the body, according to the lawsuit.

“The (family) told Harris that the body they were viewing was not that of the decedent. (The funeral home) argued that it was the correct decedent,” Lomupo said in the lawsuit.

Eventually, representatives of the funeral home – after being told that Tkacik had a tattoo on one arm of a heart with both his name and his wife’s name in the heart – removed clothing from the upper torso. It was discovered there was no such marking, Lomupo said.

Instead of a tattoo, staples indicating possible heart surgery – which Tkacik did not have – were visible on the chest, according to the lawsuit.

The public viewing for that day was canceled, and the family then began “a frantic search to determine the whereabouts of the decedent. Members of the family called and went to other funeral homes in the area. Crematoriums also were contacted.

“After some length of time and after the viewing was canceled, the body of the decedent was discovered still at Conemaugh,” Lomupo said.

The family held an abbreviated viewing the following day before the burial, according to the lawsuit.

Marsaglia described what happens when a mortician goes to a morgue, whether at a hospital or medical examiner’s office.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, the body is wrapped and in a body bag with an identification tag on it,” he said.

If the name of the body to be picked up and the name on the body bag match, the mortician has no way of knowing differently, he said.

Marlene Tkacik declined to discuss the case.

Marsaglia, who has been a licensed funeral director for 30 years, added, “The funeral home picks up what the hospital is releasing to them. If the hospital says, ‘We’re releasing Jane Doe,’ the funeral director says, ‘Fine.’

“It’s human error. It should not happen, but it does.”

John Eirksok, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, said, “These are unusual circumstances. There may have been multiple deaths, and sometimes people are not identified properly. Normally there is some form of ID on the body – wristband or ankle band. But mistakes happen.”

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