Stath v. Williams, 3-575A92

Citation367 N.E.2d 1120,174 Ind.App. 369
Decision Date03 October 1977
Docket NumberNo. 3-575A92,3-575A92
CourtCourt of Appeals of Indiana
PartiesMerlie C. STATH and Stath Office Equipment & Supply, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Alexander S. WILLIAMS, Personally and as Coroner of Lake County, Indiana, R. A. Lundeberg, Personally and as a Deputy Coroner of Lake County, Indiana, and Albert Kaltenthaler, Personally and as a Coroner's Pathologist of Lake County, Indiana, Defendants-Appellees.

John R. Nesbitt, J. Philip McGraw, Nesbitt, Fisher & Daugherty, Rensselaer, Clarence Borns, Merrillville, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Frederick F. Eichhorn, Jr., David C. Jensen, Schroer, Eichhorn & Morrow, Hammond, Richard S. Tebik, Skozen & Tebik, Munster, for defendants-appellees.

HOFFMAN, Judge.

Merlie C. Stath and Stath Office Equipment & Supply, Inc. brought their respective actions against Alexander S. Williams, Coroner; R. A. Lundeberg, Deputy Coroner and Albert Kaltenthaler, a coroner's pathologist, all of Lake County, Indiana, personally and in their official capacities, for the alleged unauthorized autopsy performed June 1, 1967, on the deceased Robert V. Stath. The allegations of the complaints were generally that due to the incompetence of Dr. Kaltenthaler and the abuse of discretion exhibited by Dr. Williams in selecting him, and due to the approval and participation of Dr. Lundeberg, an erroneous and careless autopsy was performed causing the plaintiffs to suffer damages. These were alleged to include the personal anguish of Mrs. Stath together with the expenses incurred by both of the plaintiffs in attempting to obtain accidental death benefits under certain insurance policies on the life of the deceased.

After the plaintiffs' motions for jury trial had been denied the two initially separate causes were consolidated for trial to the court. At the conclusion of plaintiffs' case-in-chief, the defendants made a motion, labeled a judgment on the evidence, which was tantamount to a prayer for an involuntary dismissal pursuant to Ind. Rules of Procedure, Trial Rule 41(B). The motion was granted for all defendants. See, Powell v. Powell (1974), 160 Ind.App. 132, 310 N.E.2d 898; Clark v. Melody Bar, Inc. (1971), 149 Ind.App. 245, 271 N.E.2d 481. Accordingly this court must determine whether there was in fact substantial evidence of probative value which could have sustained the material allegations of the complaint. Building Systems, Inc. v. Rochester Metal Prod., Inc. (1976), Ind.App., 340 N.E.2d 791. The record discloses the following facts most favorable to the appellants.

On June 1, 1967, the deceased left his home in apparent good health. During the day he contacted his wife and explained that he had an engagement with a customer in Crown Point, Indiana, and would not return to Rensselaer for dinner.

Thomas Schmal, the customer with whom the deceased had the engagement, testified to the effect that the two had a couple of drinks and a beer over their dinner discussion. He further noted that Mr. Stath appeared to be in normal physical condition and suffering from no discernable ailments when they departed company after the meal.

Later that evening at about 9:30 P.M. an Indiana State Police Officer was dispatched to a one-car automobile accident at the intersection of State Road 2 and Interstate 65. Upon arrival at the scene he found collided with a bridge abutment a 1966 Cadillac automobile owned by the deceased driver who was identified as Robert V. Stath. An ambulance attendant had moved the body out of the car and a photographer from the coroner's office took several photographs.

Thereafter the body was removed to Methodist Hospital in Gary, Indiana, pursuant to an order by Dr. Williams as coroner, for the purpose of having an autopsy performed to determine the cause of death. Dr. Kaltenthaler as coroner's pathologist performed the post-mortem by doing an external and internal examination of the body, including dissection of various organs. His conclusion was that the cause of death was "cor pulmonale due to extensive emphysema." The subsequent coroner's verdict which included an inquiry by Dr. Lundeberg stated, in pertinent part:

"VERDICT : An inquiry into the death of Robert Stath, 115 Park Avenue, Rensselaer, Indiana, reveals that on June 1, 1967, Mr. Stath was found expired at the scene of a one-car accident which occurred on the above date at approximately 9:30 P.M., on SR 2, at its intersection with I 65 Eagle Creek Township, 51/2 mile east of Lowell, Indiana. Investigation disclosed that Mr. Stath was Eastbound on SR 2, when he veered off the highway to the right traveling a total of 313 feet into the grass along the road and striking the bridge abutment of I 65 head on. It is believed that the deceased took ill at the wheel and that accounted for his losing control of his vehicle. The entire front end, roof, and left rear fender of the Stath auto was damaged. At the time of the accident the weather was clear, the lighting dark and the road pavement dry. A Blood Alcohol Analysis taken on the deceased revealed a concentration of .22%.

"CAUSE OF DEATH: Natural Cor pulmonale, extensive; bilateral pulmonary emphysema (bulbous type)."

Based on these facts first question the coroner's jurisdiction asserting that the death of Robert Stath was so clearly accidental as to preclude any suspicion of criminal conduct therefore rendering the performance of an autopsy an abuse of discretion. Reliance is placed on Sandy v. Board, etc. (1909), 171 Ind. 674, 87 N.E. 131, and Jameson v. Board of Commissioners of Bartholomew County (1878), 64 Ind. 524, for the proposition that "the statute with respect to inquests and autopsies has from the earliest times been an arm of the criminal law" and that the mere discovery of the deceased in an automobile which had collided with a bridge abutment is insufficient evidence of crime from which the coroner can retain jurisdiction.

However, an investigation by the coroner under IC 1971, 17-3-17-4(a) (Burns Code Ed.), cannot properly be construed as discretionary or based solely upon a priori suspicion of crime. Rather it is required that when there is notice of the death of a person "from violence or by casualty or by death when in apparent good health, or when found dead, or found in any suspicious, unusual or unnatural manner 1 * * * ", the coroner must initiate an investigation. Appellants are mistaken in their assumption that there should be some evidence of crime before the coroner may invoke his jurisdiction. Jurisdiction arises upon disclosure of the factual circumstances contemplated in the statute. It is the investigation itself which determines whether criminal suspicions are justified. Thus, while it is conceivable that a court could find evidence which shows that the coroner's exercise of jurisdiction was erroneous on technical grounds it cannot be said to be an abuse of discretion to order an investigation when, as here, the essential criteria of the statute have been met.

In the case at bar Robert Stath was "found dead" and could be said to have been "found dead when in apparent good health" or possibly "by casualty." Thereafter a representative from the coroner's office made an investigation at the scene and took photographs of the automobile and the body of the deceased. The reporting police officer whose investigation confirmed the conclusion of the coroner stated in his affidavit that there appeared to be "no application of brakes prior to the accident", that "(d)espite the impact of the automobile * * * the body was intact" and that "the decedent's face and body were not bloody." Under such circumstances the coroner was required to assume jurisdiction.

Once having assumed jurisdiction the coroner, in the furtherance of his inquiry, had virtually an unlimited prerogative to order a post-mortem. IC 1971, 17-3-17-4(c) (Burns Code Ed.), states, in pertinent part:

"Whenever any coroner under this act * * * deems it...

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    ...idea of negligence in that it contemplates a state of mind affirmatively operating with furtive design or ill will. Stath v. Williams , 367 N.E.2d. 1120, at 1124 (1977) citing Vickers v. Motte, (1964), 109 Ga.App. 615, 137 S.E.2d 77. "Bad faith" has also been defined as an intent to mislead......
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