Liberman v. Riverside Mem. Chapel, 225 A.D.2d 283 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t 1996) is a New York appellate case regarding whether a funeral home and the Office of the Medical Examiner wrongfully performed an autopsy against the religious beliefs of the deceased, and whether punitive damages were available. The appellate court upheld the liability against the funeral home and the city under NY Public Health Law 4210, but the court overruled the lower court’s setting aside of punitive damages.
The case arose after the deceased, a long term Orthodox Jew, was to be buried at the renowned Riverside Memorial Chapel. Riverside managed the funeral arrangements, and in doing so, Riverside communicated with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner about autopsies. Originally, the Medical Examiner listed the deceased as not requiring an autopsy, but after contact from Riverside, the Medical Examiner decided to perform an autopsy on the deceased because of his burn injuries. After miscommunication between Riverside and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Riverside hastily transferred the body to the Medical Examiner. Neither party communicated to the family about a potential autopsy even though it was clear that the deceased was a devout Orthodox Jew and an autopsy would go against his religious beliefs. The health law does not allow for an autopsy to be performed if the next of kin objects based upon or clearly goes against the religious beliefs of the deceased, unless a court finds strong public need for the autopsy.
The jury in the trial court found in favor of the Libermans, finding that Riverside and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner clearly did not abide by the Public Health Law for someone who cared deeply about religious devotion. The jury awarded $75,000 in compensatory and $1,350,000 in punitive damages to the Libermans. The trial court set aside the jury’s punitive damages award, citing that it was unavailable under Public Health Laws. The appellate court affirmed the holding from the lower court as to liability, but the court overturned the trial court in setting aside the punitive damages award. The court reasons that punitive damages can be available for a tortious act like this, if the acts were done with intentional disregard or indifference to legal requirements. Here, the court says the jury could have awarded public damages because Riverside rushed the body to the Medical Examiner and pushed for an autopsy even though doing so clearly went against the deceased’s religious practices and therefore the Public Health Law. The appellate court did reduce the punitive damages award for not being related in number to the actual injury suffered.
[Last updated in October of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]