The parents of an 18-month-old boy who died suddenly in June of 2008 have prevailed at trial in a week-long lawsuit against the firm that handles medical-examiner duties for Metro Nashville.
On Monday and Tuesday, a Davidson County Circuit Court jury awarded Don and Sarah Sinclair of Nashville $300,000 in compensatory damages and then $1.25 million in punitive damages against Forensic Medical Management Services PLC.
The company was found liable for refusing to let the parents see the body of their son Tyler after a doctor at Southern Hills Medical Center pronounced him dead on June 13, 2008.
The jury sent also a note to the couple expressing support for its efforts to change the law so that other parents would not go through an experience like theirs in the future.
A caregiver found Tyler unresponsive late on the morning of June 13. Emergency medical personnel took him to Southern Hills, where emergency department physician Steven Aaronson and colleagues tried for 22 minutes to resuscitate him before concluding he was dead. The court record indicates no cause of death.
The Sinclairs' lawsuit said they had arrived at Southern Hills, been told of the fatality, and then hoped to view the body and "say goodbye." But then events took an unexpected turn.
Metro Nashville Police personnel were on hand, along with a Forensic Medical representative named Sherrie Saint. In a deposition, Aaronson described the encounter he and a group of "several distraught nurses" had with Saint:
"They were concerned about the fact that the parents weren't being allowed in to see the -- see their child....
"The impression I was getting is -- from the nurses was that they were not being allowed to see the baby, because the medical examiner, who was a woman, felt that they were going to destroy some evidence. And so I recall discussing with her, as we've discussed, actually, about the grieving process, that I felt that it was important the parents be able to see their child; and that if there was some concern about them touching the child, destroying of evidence, that we can ensure that they -- if she felt strongly about that then they wouldn't have to pick up the child or touch the child or do those kind of things, but that we felt it was important that they at least see that there was -- that that was their child....
"I got kind of a -- well, I consider it a smart answer back.... 'There's something I can do for you' -- and then a pause -- and she said, 'I can have you arrested.' And she pointed at the detective -- 'I can have him arrest you for interfering with a criminal investigation' -- which pretty much ended the conversation, being threatened with being arrested."
Former Metro Councilman-at-Large David Briley was one of three Bone McAllester attorneys representing the Sinclair couple in the trial, along with John Branham and Charles Robert Bone. "She was just harsh in her deposition," Briley said of Saint, paraphrasing her as saying: "I'll never allow it. Not even after this lawsuit will I allow it."
Saint's full deposition is not available from the online court record. But one filing in the case quoted her justification for keeping parents away from the corpse of a dead child:
"When I first started, I allowed the parents to hold the babies. The reason I stopped is because occasionally, we've had instances where the parents got so distraught that they drop the baby; or sometimes it becomes so traumatic that they will not release the baby to you, and they end up crushing the baby; or they have a tug-of-war and do not want to relinquish the baby to you, you know, at an appropriate time. And it just becomes too traumatic for them for you to have to take the child from them.
"[If] I allow them to drop the child or do harm to the child or mess up some sort of evidence, then I'm not doing my duty to that child. And that's my first responsibility, is to make sure that that child has the proper investigation performed....
"My responsibility is to that child — is to that deceased person — is I have to preserve that person so that we can determine what their cause and manner of death is."
The lawsuit went to trial on October 26 before Circuit Judge Tom Brothers. The Sinclairs had dismissed Southern Hills as a defendant after learning how Aaronson and the nurses had tried to take their side. The case went to the jury last Friday.
"There was a lot of gnashing of teeth in the jury room, from what we have heard, and they had one holdout who kept it from being a much bigger number," Briley said.
"We had five or six jurors come out afterward and hug our clients and talk to us. They were very moved by the circumstances."
The jury verdict form, delivered on Monday and Tuesday of this week, is available at this link. It includes this note:
"The purpose of awarding these punitive damages is to ensure that this injustice does not happen again. The testimony of the plaintiffs indicates that they want to pursue these efforts as well. Some members of the jury would like to support the parents in these future endeavors."
Miller & Martin's Bob Trentham is counsel to defendant Forensic Medical Management Services. He issued this statement to NashvillePost.com:
"While the Nashville medical examiner's office sincerely regrets the tragic death of Tyler Sinclair, and continues to extend its sympathies to his parents, it disagrees with the jury's verdict and believes that its death investigator acted appropriately under the suspicious circumstances surrounding Tyler Sinclair's death. It intends to appeal the jury's verdict, both as to compensatory and as to punitive damages."
The courtroom result is unusual. Tennessee Jury Verdict Reporter, a Louisville, Ky.-based newsletter that covers trial outcomes statewide, has typically noted only a handful of verdicts from the Nashville area in each of its issues this year. Most have involved either defense wins or plaintiffs' awards of less than $100,000.