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Beaky v. County of Bucks

August 3, 2009

MICHELLE MURRAY BEAKY, ET AL.,
v.
COUNTY OF BUCKS, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ditter, J.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This case comes before me on motions to dismiss the complaint. It arises out of the failure of a decedent's relatives to be told of his death before he was cremated. The defendants include the hospital where he was originally taken; the county coroner, his deputies, and his office; the county where he died; the funeral home, which temporarily housed the decedent's body, and its president; and the crematory, which disposed of the body, and its president. For the reasons that follow, I will grant all the motions to dismiss and allow the plaintiffs to amend their complaint.*fn1

I. BACKGROUND

The complaint alleges Harry Murray was playing pool on December 6, 2006, when he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. He was transported to Warminster Hospital where he was pronounced dead within minutes of his arrival. Less than two hours later, John McGhee, the deputy coroner of Bucks County, viewed Murray's body and issued a coroner's report and the body was placed in the hospital morgue. Employees of the hospital attempted to contact next-of- kin but were unable to locate them and the body remained unclaimed. On December 15, 2006, McGhee signed Murray's death certificate and authorized the removal of Murray's body from the hospital morgue. The body was transported to Huff & Lakjer Funeral Home that same day. McGhee and Richard Kuntz, the first deputy coroner, also attempted to contact next-of-kin but were unable to locate them. Within a thirteen-day period, the coroner officials reviewed Murray's hospital records, spoke with Murray's girlfriend, contacted the office of Murray's physician, located old addresses, and attempted to contact possible relatives in several states. On December 19, 2006, unable to locate any next-of-kin and with Murray's body unclaimed, Kuntz issued a permit authorizing cremation and the body was cremated that same day. Murray's daughters, the plaintiffs Michelle Beaky and Constance D'Abruzzo, were not notified prior to the cremation and did not learn of Murray's death until April 2007. (Compl. ¶¶ 22-59.)

The plaintiffs filed a complaint against Tenet Healthsystem Bucks County, LLC, d/b/a Warminster Hospital; the county coroner, Joseph Campell, and his deputies, Kuntz and McGhee; the Office of the Coroner, Bucks County; the County of Bucks; Huff & Lakjer Funeral Home, Inc. and its president, Philip Lakjer; and Landsdale Crematory and its president, Lena Lakjer. The plaintiffs make federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and several other claims under Pennsylvania law. The hospital, the county, and the coroner's office and its officials have each filed motions to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6); the coroner's office and its officials also argue that the state law claims should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. At issue here are the plaintiffs claims against those defendants.*fn2

II. JURISDICTION

This court has original jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' § 1983 claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Because I am dismissing all the § 1983 claims against the hospital, the county, and the coroner's office and its officials, I will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' state law claims against those defendants. 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3).

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. I must accept as true the factual allegations contained in the complaint and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom and view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. A valid complaint requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Although Rule 8 does not demand "'detailed factual allegations,' . . . . 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id.; see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) ("This 'does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage,' but instead 'simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary element."). Iqbal clarified that the Court's decision in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), which required a heightened degree of fact pleading in an anti-trust case, "expounded the standard for 'all civil actions.'" 129 S.Ct. at 1953.

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Preliminary Issues

1. Whether the Claims Were Timely Filed

The officials in the coroner's office, Campbell, Kuntz, and McGhee, incorrectly argue that both the plaintiffs' federal and state law claims are subject to the six-month limitations period governing actions against government officials, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5522(b) (2009). In § 1983 claims, federal courts must apply the state's limitations period for personal injury, Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 276-78 (1985), which under Pennsylvania statute, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524 (2009), is two years. Section 5522(b) is a residual limitations period with limiting language that makes it inapplicable to claims subject to other limitations periods. Salanek v. State Trooper Eric Olena, 558 F. Supp. 370, 371 (E.D. Pa. 1983). Here, I find that the plaintiffs' state law claims constitute "an action to recover damages for injuries to the person . . . caused by the wrongful act . . . of another" within the meaning of § 5524(2), which has a two-year limitations period, and thus, the residual period of § 5522(b) is not applicable.*fn3 The instant complaint was filed in March 2008 and Murray was cremated less than two years earlier in December 2006; therefore, both the federal and state claims were timely filed.

2. Whether Any Defendants Have Governmental Immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act

At this time, I decline to address any issues related to the defense of governmental immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act ("PSTCA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8541-8542 (2009). Although the county briefly referenced its applicability during oral arguments, no defendants have asserted the immunity defense under the PSTCA in their motions to dismiss or submitted briefs regarding how it applies to the alleged facts in this case. The defendants' failure to raise the defense and my decision not to address it should not be construed to mean that the defendants have waived their right to this defense.

3. Whether the "Office of the Coroner, Buck County" is a Suable Legal Entity

A decision as to whether the "Office of the Coroner, Bucks County" is an entity subject to legal process would be premature because there are unresolved questions relevant to the analysis, including, inter alia, those regarding the nature of the relationship between the state, the county, and the coroner's office as it operates within Pennsylvania. For the purposes of this order, I treat the county and the coroner's office as one and the same.

B. Count I -- Section 1983 Procedural Due Process Claim Against the County and the Coroner's ...


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