The Washington Post

Grandmother allegedly froze to death in hospital morgue

The entrance of the White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles is seen on Monday, Dec. 18, 2006. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) The entrance of the White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles is seen on Monday, Dec. 18, 2006. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

An 80-year-old grandmother was allegedly still alive when she was zipped up in a body bag and put in the hospital morgue’s freezer — where she tried unsuccessfully to escape and froze to death.

Her family is suing the hospital thanks to an appeals court that revived their medical malpractice suit on Wednesday. The case was previously thrown out by a lower court.

Maria de Jesus Arroyo was declared dead in summer 2010 after she was rushed to White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. She had gone into cardiac arrest.

Her family said their goodbyes and let the hospital take it from there. Arroyo’s body was placed in a body bag face-up in the hospital morgue’s freezer, according to court documents. When Arroyo’s body arrived at the mortuary a few days later, it was face-down, the body bag was halfway unzipped and her face was battered — a broken nose, bumps and bruises.

The family filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the hospital, claiming that the body had been mishandled and mutilated, The Los Angeles Times reported. But it wasn’t until the eve of the trial date that they began to fear worse: Arroyo hadn’t died from a heart attack, but from asphyxiation and hypothermia. In his opinion, New Jersey pathologist William Manion said:

“I do not believe these wounds could occur postmortem,” he wrote. “There is only one apparent explanation: Mrs. Arroyo was alive when she was placed into a refrigerated unit within defendant’s morgue. … [Being placed in a freezer alive] caused Mrs. Arroyo terror and great suffering in her final minutes.”

The family’s attorney withdrew the suit and filed a medical malpractice suit in May 2012, claiming that the hospital had mistakenly declared Arroyo dead and had frozen her to death in a morgue freezer. A county judge threw out the case saying it was too late for the one-year statute of limitations — a ruling that was just overturned by an appeals court.

Attorney Richard J. Ryan for White Memorial told the LA Times that the hospital would fight the case in court:

“In my opinion and based upon our thorough investigation, the allegations of the Arroyo family will not be proven.”

The case is stuff of nightmares. The family’s attorney, Scott Schutzman, told CBS Los Angeles:

“This is one of the most egregious cases you’ll ever see. This case keeps me awake at night.”

Lindsey Bever is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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