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A putative class-action suit filed Tuesday charges a defunct Fort Lee company, along with tissue banks and funeral homes, with engaging in fraud and deception by illegally harvesting and selling body parts of the plaintiffs’ deceased family members. The suit, filed in state court in Philadelphia, is the latest salvo in mounting litigation over the scheme, which caused the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 to shut down the operations of Biomedical Tissue Services, Ltd. The FDA estimates that as many as 13,000 people worldwide have received illegally harvested body parts or tissue, and droves of recipients have come into court, claiming among other things fear of contracting the diseases that led to the donors’ deaths. At least 500 suits have been filed in the U.S. alone, the bulk them consolidated as In re Human Tissue Productions Liability Litigation, 06-135, in Newark and managed by U.S. District Judge William Martini. Others are pending in federal and state courts across the country and still others in European courts. Tuesday’s suit, Wilson et al. v. Biomedical Tissue Services Inc. et al., 08-3629, was filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court on behalf of the survivors of James Bonnor, who died in May 2004, and Felicia Pancoast, who died in September 2005. Bonner’s children – Martha, Nancy and James Wilson – learned that their father’s body parts had been harvested after a Philadelphia detective presented them with a forged release purported signed by his wife. Bonner, however, had never married, according to the suit. The suit does not say how Felicia’s husband, Neil, learned that his wife’s organs had been harvested, although he alleges it was done illegally. The plaintiffs say they have suffered intense emotional pain and suffering because of the defendants’ alleged actions. The suit does not specify the amount of damages sought. The 16-count complaint alleges conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, deceitful trade practices, false advertising, negligent misrepresentation, intentional misrepresentation, common law deceit and multiple counts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and unfair trade practices. Plaintiffs’ lawyers Lawrence Cohan and Melissa Fry Hague, of Anapol, Schwartz, Weill, Cohan, Feldman & Smalley, estimate that BTS purchased as many as 244 bodies from two Philadelphia funeral homes – the James A. McCafferty Funeral Home and the Garzon Funeral Home – and from a crematorium, Liberty Cremation Inc., all of which are named defendants. Other defendants are tissue banks that allegedly purchased body parts from BTS: LifeCell Corp. of Branchburg; Lost Mountain Tissue Bank of Kennesaw, Ga.; The Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas in Austin; and Regeneration Technologies Inc. and Tutogen Medical Inc., both of Aluchas, Fla. Last November, Martini refused to release the tissue banks on summary judgment from the New Jersey federal litigation. The banks argued that they were provided with what appeared to be valid consent forms and that they acted in good faith. BTS’s activities first came to light in October 2005 when the New York Daily News ran a story under the headline “They Carved Up My Father!” about several Brooklyn funeral homes that allegedly harvested bodies without the consent of the survivors. The story gained further notoriety when Rev. Susan Cooke Kittredge, the daughter of Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, was contacted by Brooklyn police and shown copies of forged releases supposedly signed by members of his family for use of his body parts. Cooke, who died at the age of 95 in 2004, would have been considered too old to have his organs harvested, but prosecutors say BTS backdated his death by 10 years. BTS, although headquartered in Fort Lee, operated primarily out of a facility in Brooklyn. Principal Michael Mastromarino and another official, Lee Crucetta, have pleaded guilty to forgery and related charges and are awaiting sentencing. Mastromarino agreed to a 18- to 54-year sentence, while Crucetta agreed to one of between eight and 24 years. A Brooklyn jury on Monday convicted a third defendant, Christopher Aldorassi, on 20 of 22 counts. He faces a possible 60-year sentence. A fourth defendant, Joseph Nicelli, awaits trial. Mastromarino at one point was a dentist and oral surgeon with a thriving practice in Manhattan before he become addicted to drugs. At one point, according one malpractice suit filed against him, he allegedly abandoned a patient in the middle of an operation and was found on a bathroom floor with a hypodermic needle in his arm. He went into the organ and tissue donation business after going through a drug rehabilitation program, according to a 2006 report in the Washington Post. His attorney, Mario Gallucci, of Staten Island’s Helbock, Nappa & Gallucci, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

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