NC court says Charlotte woman can't sue over medical examiner errors

frkelly@charlotteobserver.comJune 4, 2014 

The state Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Tuesday that a grieving mother cannot sue the state because a medical examiner conducted a flawed investigation into her son’s death.

The three-judge panel said the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is immune from liability because medical examiners work for the public and have no duty to individual families.

Gretchen Crowder of Charlotte accused Gaston County Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Flitt of failing to perform his job properly after her son died in 2005.

Flitt ruled that Matthew Crowder, 22, committed suicide even though he never visited the death scene or viewed the body. Instead, a nurse Flitt hired to handle some of his medical examiner work conducted the probe.

Crowder alleged that inaccuracies in a death report compiled by the nurse caused her emotional and mental duress.

The decision affirms an earlier ruling from the N.C. Industrial Commission, which hears tort claims against the state.

Crowder said Tuesday she wasn’t surprised by the ruling, but is still angry about the investigation.

“Their hands are dirty,” said Crowder, who believes her son was a victim of foul play. “You ruled it suicide when you didn’t even look at the body.”

Her attorney, Chet Rabon of Charlotte, said no decision has been made whether to appeal the case to the N.C. Supreme Court.

A spokesman for DHHS said officials are reviewing the opinion.

State attorney Olga Vysotskaya has previously argued that the state law that sets the duties of medical examiners makes no mention of any obligation to the deceased person’s next of kin.

According to the lawsuit, Crowder opened her mailbox in 2005 to find a death report that contained errors and omissions, including the wrong eye color. She has told the Observer the report also listed the incorrect height, weight and hair color for her son.

Nearly a year after he died, Matthew Crowder’s body was exhumed and the state performed an autopsy, but declined to change the cause of death.

A recent Observer investigation found that medical examiners sometimes rule in cases where they never viewed the body, in violation of state guidelines.

Tuesday’s appeals court decision stands in contrast to a ruling last month by the Industrial Commission in another case. The state was ordered to pay nearly $400,000 to the family of a woman whose body was sent to the wrong funeral home by a Guilford County medical examiner.

A deputy commissioner for the Industrial Commission concluded that the medical examiner’s failure to properly identify the corpse represented a “breach of duty.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027

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