Coon v. Med. Ctr., Inc., A15A0884.

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
Citation780 S.E.2d 118,335 Ga.App. 278
Docket NumberNo. A15A0884.,A15A0884.
Decision Date20 November 2015

335 Ga.App. 278
780 S.E.2d 118


No. A15A0884.

Court of Appeals of Georgia.

Nov. 20, 2015.
Reconsideration Denied Dec. 15, 2015.

Certiorari Granted May 9, 2016.

780 S.E.2d 120

F. Houser Pugh, Columbus, Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, Archie Irwin Grubb II, for Appellant.

Hall Booth Smith, John E. Hall Jr., W. Scott Henwood, Atlanta, Mark W. Wortham, Lauren King Dimitri, Columbus, Paul Douglas Ivey Jr., for Appellee.

DOYLE, Chief Judge.

335 Ga.App. 278

This case arises out of the mislabeling of the remains of a stillborn baby, resulting in the funeral and burial of the wrong child. The trial court initially denied summary judgment to the defendant hospital after concluding that under the choice-of-law rule of lex loci delicti, Alabama law would govern the emotional distress claims brought by the plaintiff mother, who first learned of the mishandled remains when contacted at her home in Alabama. The trial court later revisited the issue, however, and concluded that application of Alabama law would violate Georgia public policy because Alabama does not impose an "impact rule" on plaintiffs seeking damages for emotional distress arising from the negligent mishandling of human remains. After concluding that Georgia law should apply, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital, holding that the mother's emotional distress claims failed as a matter of law because she could not show physical injury, pecuniary loss, or sufficiently outrageous misconduct by the hospital. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm.

335 Ga.App. 279

Summary judgment is proper only if the pleadings and evidence "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."1 On appeal from a trial court's grant of summary judgment, we "conduct a de novo review, construing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party."2

So viewed, the record shows that Amanda Rae Coon lives in Opelika, Alabama. On February 8, 2011, Coon, who was 37 weeks pregnant, went for a routine prenatal examination at her obstetrician-gynecologist's office in Columbus, Georgia. During the examination, Coon learned that her unborn baby did not have a heartbeat.

The following day, Coon was admitted to a Columbus hospital owned by The Medical Center, Inc. (the "hospital"), where her labor was induced and she delivered a stillborn baby girl. After the delivery, the hospital's bereavement coordinator spoke with Coon and her father, who informed the coordinator that the remains of the baby were to be released to a funeral home in Opelika. The bereavement coordinator completed a mortuary permit and supporting documents that included the pertinent funeral home information and placed these documents with Coon's patient chart.

The stillborn baby initially remained with Coon in her hospital room, but Coon's mother later informed the bereavement coordinator that Coon was tired and asked that the baby be removed. The coordinator placed Coon's baby in a separate holding room on the same floor until someone could take the

780 S.E.2d 121

baby to the hospital morgue. In addition to Coon's baby, there was a smaller stillborn baby boy, who was less than 20 weeks in gestation, already in the holding room.

When the bereavement coordinator placed Coon's baby in the holding room with the smaller baby, the hospital floor was in the middle of the evening shift change. A nurse whose shift had just begun volunteered to transport both babies from the holding room to the morgue. Under a hospital policy put into effect two days earlier, identification tags were to be placed on the arm and leg of a stillborn baby and on the outside of the cadaver bag before being delivered to the morgue. The nurse filled out the three tags for both of the babies.

The nurse had not yet had an opportunity to affix the identification tags when a hospital security guard came to the floor and asked the nurse if she was ready for him to escort her to the morgue with the babies. Because the babies were not yet prepared for transport to the morgue, the security guard decided to assist the nurse with the

335 Ga.App. 280

placement of the identification tags. The security guard had never tagged a deceased baby, and his job duties did not include tagging the remains of deceased patients or preparing them for transport to the morgue.

When the security guard began assisting the nurse, they mixed up the identification tags. The nurse tagged the smaller baby with the identification tags for Coon's baby, and the security guard tagged Coon's baby with the identification tags for the smaller baby. The security guard placed a tag on the outside of the cadaver bag for Coon's baby, but chose not to "fool" with the tags on the baby's body because he did not want to remove any of the baby's clothing. The nurse repeatedly told the security guard that he needed to place identification tags on the body of Coon's baby, but he chose not to do so.

The nurse and security guard transported the stillborn babies to the morgue with the wrong identification tags and logged in the remains. Because of the incorrect identification tags, the hospital mistakenly released the wrong baby to the Opelika funeral home.

On February 12, 2011, Coon, her family members, and other mourners attended a funeral at an Opelika cemetery for a deceased stillborn baby whom they believed was Coon's. Coon and her family members did not view the baby's remains before or during the funeral service after the funeral director advised against it, given the condition of the remains.3 The costs of transporting the baby from the hospital to the funeral home were paid by Coon's husband through the military, and Coon's aunts paid for the funeral service and donated the burial plot.

On February 23, 2011, the hospital discovered that it had released the wrong baby to the Opelika funeral home. The hospital contacted the director of the Opelika funeral home, informed him of the mistake, and requested contact information for Coon's family. The funeral director advised the hospital to contact Coon's father rather than Coon herself because "mentally, she [would] just not [be] able to take it" if she learned of the mistaken identification.

Later that day, the hospital's chief executive officer contacted Coon by telephone and informed her that the hospital had released the wrong baby for burial. The following day, the baby who had been mistakenly released to the funeral home was exhumed from the

335 Ga.App. 281

Opelika cemetery. The funeral home director then traveled to Columbus to deliver the exhumed baby to a different funeral home and to retrieve Coon's baby from the hospital.

After the exhumed baby's remains were handed over to the representative of another funeral home, the Opelika funeral director retrieved a cadaver bag from the hospital morgue that had an identification tag for Coon's baby on the outside of it. Yet, when the director returned to his funeral home in Opelika, he discovered that the cadaver bag contained nothing but a blanket, and he had to return again to the hospital morgue to obtain Coon's baby, whom hospital employees

780 S.E.2d 122

had left in a holding room in the morgue. In violation of hospital policy, no documentation was made in the morgue log book showing when Coon's baby or the exhumed baby were returned to the morgue or to show when the switch occurred and who was involved.

Once the funeral director obtained the proper remains from the hospital, Coon's baby was buried at the Opelika cemetery. The hospital paid the costs associated with the exhumation of the misidentified baby and the subsequent burial of the correct remains. Coon did not attend the second burial because she "could not handle having to go through that all over again."

In March 2011, Coon filed the present lawsuit against the hospital, seeking damages for the emotional distress she suffered as result of the mishandling of her stillborn child's remains.4 Following discovery, the hospital moved for summary judgment, contending that Coon's emotional distress claims failed under Georgia law because Coon suffered no physical injury or pecuniary loss and the conduct of the hospital was not intentional, reckless, extreme, or outrageous. In response, Coon argued that Alabama law applied under the choice-of-law rule of lex loci delicti because she suffered the relevant emotional distress in Opelika, where she learned of the hospital's mistake and the funeral service, burial, exhumation, and reburial had occurred. Coon further argued that under Alabama law, she was not required to prove physical injury, pecuniary loss, or intentional or reckless misconduct to support an emotional distress claim for the mishandling of human remains.

The trial court concluded that Alabama law applied and denied the hospital's motion for summary judgment. When the hospital moved...

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    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
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    ...the Court of Appeals affirmed, although the seven judges disagreed about the choice-of-law analysis. See Coon v. Medical Center, Inc. , 335 Ga.App. 278, 780 S.E.2d 118 (2015).We granted Coon's petition for certiorari primarily to review the Court of Appeals' analysis of the choice-of-law is......
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    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • September 28, 2020
    ...disapprove of cases where the public policy exception has been construed more liberally. See, e.g., Coon v. Medical Center, Inc. , 335 Ga. App. 278, 283, 780 S.E.2d 118 (2015) (using public policy exception to apply Georgia law where there was a "significant difference" on the impact rule f......
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    • September 28, 2020
    ...disapprove of cases where the public policy exception has been construed more liberally. See, e.g., Coon v. Medical Center, Inc. , 335 Ga. App. 278, 283, 780 S.E.2d 118 (2015) (using public policy exception to apply Georgia law where there was a "significant difference" on the impact rule f......
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