Earlier this month, the family of Harold St. John, a former airline worker and car mechanic who died of mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, was outraged when representatives from Chrysler crashed St. John’s South Brunswick funeral with a subpoena for his body, preventing its burial.
67-year-old St. John, who had sued Chrysler, along with Honeywell, for producing the asbestos-laden brake linings that had caused his illness, had died just days before the trial was set to begin. Although he had provided ample biopsy samples of his lungs while still alive, Chrysler issued the subpoena claiming that a full autopsy needed to be performed to determine the cause of death.
St. John’s wife and children fought the subpoena, arguing not only that the autopsy was unnecessary; but that the way that Chrysler went about interrupting the funeral to take the body was flagrantly disrespectful.
Yesterday, a New Jersey appeals court agreed with the family and denied the defense’s autopsy request, finding that defendants Chrysler and Honeywell had failed to demonstrate how further examining the body’s lung tissue would produce significant evidence.
Superior Court Judge Philip Paley, who had initially denied Chrysler’s request for a subpoena on March 3 (the company had received in on appeal the next day), adhered to his original opinion in a March 12 ruling, “which he based on lack of sufficient need, on the family’s religious objections and on the ‘compelling public necessity standard’ set forth in the law governing autopsies by medical examiners, N.J.S.A. 52:17B-88.1 et seq” (New Jersey Law Journal). The judges also found that this law does not apply to private civil disputes.
The ruling means that the family of Harold St. John can finally lay his body to rest. But Chrysler’s outrageous conduct in this matter is worth a lawsuit by itself. When the family of Harold St. John has finished suing the company for causing his death, they should sue for preventing his timely burial.