Grandmother Froze in Morgue: Lawsuit

An appeals court ruled the case filed by the family of 80-year-old Maria de Jesus Arroyo against a Southern California hospital can move forward

By Andrew Lopez, Hetty Chang, Jason Kandel and Jonathan Lloyd
|  Friday, Apr 4, 2014  |  Updated 9:14 AM PDT
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The family of Maria de Jesus Arroyo believes she was still alive and struggling to get out of a body bag in a refrigerated morgue area after being declared dead at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights four years ago. Hetty Chang reports from Santa Ana for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, 2014.

Hetty Chang/Kevin Dahlgren

The family of Maria de Jesus Arroyo believes she was still alive and struggling to get out of a body bag in a refrigerated morgue area after being declared dead at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights four years ago. Hetty Chang reports from Santa Ana for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, 2014.

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The family of a woman who may have frozen to death after being pronounced dead and placed in a morgue is moving forward with a lawsuit against a hospital that claims their family member "struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb."

Maria de Jesus Arroyo -- an 80-year-old grandmother with more than 50 grandchildren -- was pronounced dead in July 2010 after suffering a heart attack. A few days later, she was found in a half unzipped body bag, face-down with a broken nose and cuts and bruises to her face -- injuries family members said were not there at the time she was hospitalized, according to court papers.

On Wednesday, a California appeals court ruled that the family's medical malpractice lawsuit alleging the woman's body was mishandled by the hospital can move forward.

"She was put into that body bag while she was alive," said the family's attorney, Scott Schutzman. "The cold from the hospital morgue woke her up and she was fighting her way out when she died."

The lawsuit against White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights alleging wrongful death outlines the family's account of what happened after Arroyo was found unconscious at her home in July 2010. She was transported to the hospital by ambulance and later declared dead.

The lawsuit claims she was "prematurely" declared dead at the hospital and that she was frozen alive at the morgue before mortuary workers who arrived to transport her found Arroyo face-down in a halfway unzipped body bag. Family members said they did not see lacerations and bruises on her face until viewing her remains at the funeral home.

"The (mortuary) workers informed plaintiffs of the injuries to the decedent's remains, which the mortuary was unable to mask," court documents state.

A medical expert hired by the attorney for Arroyo's family -- her husband and eight children -- claimed the injuries did not occur after death.

"She was put in a hospital morgue drawer, and my expert opines that she was fighting her way out," said Schutzman. "She must have got the wounds while her heart was pumping -- while she was fighting her way out."

The woman's oldest grandson told NBC4 that family members were horrifed when a medical expert hired by the plaintiffs' attorney told them Arroyo, who worked as a waitress after moving to the United States from Mexico, had frozen alive. 

Hospital officials denied the claims, but expressed their condolences to the family. 

"We followed all proper protocols in this matter and are confident that once the facts of the case are reviewed we will prevail in court," officials said in a statement.

The case could take up to a year to reach the Los Angeles Superior Court system, Schutzman said.

The appeals court ruling comes about three years after the first lawsuit in connection with the case was filed. The appeals court noted in its ruling that the plaintiffs' first lawsuit was based on information that suggested the injuries occurred after death. 

The first lawsuit was withdrawn just before trial, paving the way for a second filing in May 2012 that alleged the hospital mistakenly declared Arroyo dead. That lawsuit was thrown out because it was filed beyond a one-year statute of limitations.

But the Second District Court Wednesday overturned the judge's ruling, allowing the case to proceed. In its ruling, the court said the Arroyo family "could not reasonably have discovered" key information about her death until December 2011 -- more than a year after her death -- when a medical expert hired in the dismissed lawsuit reviewed discovery material and concluded the injuries "occurred post-mortem."

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