A woman died in a morgue freezer where she was mistakenly placed after being wrongly pronounced dead four years ago, her family charges, and Wednesday a judge in Los Angeles decided that the family’s lawsuit against the hospital that allegedly made the horrifying error can go ahead — after another judge earlier tossed the lawsuit on a technicality.
The story of what happened to the woman in the freezer, Maria de Jesus Arroyo, is almost too disturbing too contemplate being inflicted on a loved one. The 80-year-old grandmother suffered a heart attack in July of 2010 and was taken to White Memorial Medical Center in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, on the city’s east side.
At the hospital, doctors checked her out and sadly decided that she had passed away. They pronounced her dead. Her body was sealed inside a body bag and stored in the hospital morgue freezer, where temperatures are kept extremely cold to prevent bodies from decomposing before they can be prepared for burial.
But a few days later, morticians showed up at the hospital’s morgue to retrieve the body of the woman in the freezer. They found Maria de Jesus Arroyo in her body bag, but face down on the freezer floor with cuts and bruises on her face — and a broken nose.
“The mortuary found Maria de Jesus Arroyo upside down in the body bag,” the family’s lawyer Scott Schutzman said. “She was fighting her way out,”
Her husband and eight children sued the hospital, claiming that the matriarch’s body had been badly mishandled by the hospital. But then at hearing in 2011, a pathologist took the stand and delivered testimony that made the appalling situation even worse.
Though the hospital declared her dead, in reality, the woman was “alive in the hospital’s freezer” and “eventually woke up due to extreme cold,” the pathologist testified.
The woman in the freezer “damaged her face and turned herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb,” according to the testimony.
“This is one of the most egregious cases you’ll ever see,” said Schutzman. “This case keeps me awake at night.”
The heartbreaking revelation led the family members to drop their lawsuit and file a new one for medical malpractice, saying that the hospital prematurely declared Maria de Jesus Arroyo dead and subjected her to a terrifying and tragic ordeal. The cause of her death was not a heart attack, but hypothermia and asphyxiation, the suit says.
But a judge threw out the lawsuit, saying the one-year deadline since the tragic incident occurred had past. Yesterday, the 2nd District Court of Appeal said the previous judge was wrong. Because the family could not have known that the woman in the freezer was actually still alive until the pathologist’s testimony in December of 2011, the suit was valid.