In a case of first impression, a New Jersey appeals court on Wednesday denied a defense request for an autopsy of an asbestos-exposure plaintiff who died two days before trial.
The panel, in St. John v. Affinia Group, affirmed a trial judge's finding that defendants Chrysler Corp. and Honeywell failed to show that examination of the dead man's lung tissue would produce significant evidence.
The ruling means that Harold St. John, whose body has been stored at the DeMarco funeral home in Monroe Township, N.J., can now be laid to rest.
The Middlesex County suit claims St. John, who died on Feb. 28 at age 67, contracted mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, by inhaling asbestos while working in a car-repair shop decades earlier.
Chrysler and Honeywell learned of his death on March 2, the day trial was to start, and immediately asked for an autopsy to learn what, if any, fibers were present in St. John's lung tissue, in order to help refute causation.
Superior Court Judge Phillip Paley denied the request the next day. An emergent appeal resulted in a March 4 order halting the burial in progress at the Holy Cross Burial Park in South Brunswick, N.J. The order also sent the matter back for a hearing and written opinion.
In a March 12 opinion, Paley adhered to his original denial of the autopsy, which he based on lack of sufficient showing of need, on the family's religious objections and on the "compelling public necessity standard" set forth in the law governing autopsies by medical examiners, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-88.1 et seq.
Appellate Division Judges Dorothea Wefing, Laura LeWinn and Lorraine Parker agreed with Paley that the defendants' medical expert testimony "did not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that it is reasonably likely that a limited autopsy would yield results that are evidentially significant in terms of the pending trial."
The panel disagreed with Paley on the significance of religious objections, saying to accept his "apparent view that the mere assertion by a party of a religious objection is determinative" would allow litigants to "thwart completely and without justification a proper request."
The judges also found that the statute governing medical examiners' autopsies does not apply to private civil disputes.
Wefing, writing for the panel, also pointed out that if St. John had not died right before trial, Chrysler and Honeywell would have gone ahead and defended without autopsy evidence. "Thus, their trial preparation was in no way hampered by the denial," she said.
The St. John family's lawyer, Moshe Maimon of Levy Phillips & Konigsberg in New York, says Paley correctly applied the medical-examiner statute based on the legislative history. Maimon's co-counsel is Arnold Lakind, of Lawrenceville, N.J.'s Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein, Blader & Lehmann.
Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese says the company did not "intend any disrespect to the late Mr. St. John or to his family at this difficult time." He adds that the type of evidence sought is "regularly used by expert witnesses and used in asbestos lawsuits in cases throughout the country," and that the company is considering its options.
Honeywell spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld said the company extends its condolences to the St. John family. "It is unfortunate that the hearing ordered by the court resulted in the delay of Mr. St. John's burial. We believe the evidence we sought was central to our case," she said.
Chrysler is represented by James Lynch, of Lynch Daskal Emery in New York, and Honeywell by Kim Catullo, of Gibbons in Newark."