Imagine waking up at the morgue…not the warmest of thoughts. Well, we saw an interesting article today about just that - a South African man woke up inside a morgue fridge. The unidentified man had suffered an asthma attack and apparently was unconscious. He was “presumed dead by his family” who called a private morgue to pick up the body, but after spending 21 hours in a refrigerated morgue “surrounded [by] corpses,” he woke up screaming for help.Man wakes up screaming in morgue

Though an interesting conversational piece and perhaps an even better horror film plot, the underlying issues are serious and worrisome. The South African government has made this case public out of concern. The ‘dead’ man was presumed dead by family members and those family members called a private mortuary company and not the paramedics. The government urges people to call “health services to have their relatives declared and certified dead” as employees of private mortuaries are not trained paramedics. The scariest statement was that these companies are “about business”.

What Legal Rights Does the Victim Have?

In such an odd case, can the victim bring a cause of action against the private mortuary for Professional Negligence? To prove a professional negligence action, it is up to the plaintiff to prove a negligence cause of action in which the defendant (here the private mortuary company), breached his higher duty of care as a professional towards the plaintiff.

If you are in the business of mortuary services, you should be able to tell that your “clients” are in fact, dead. Trained health professionals are skilled in the strict procedures and guidelines used to declare someone dead. (Checking for a pulse, dilation of eyes, slight and shallow breath, heart beats) It is unclear if the private mortuary did any type of verification of death or if they just took the family on its word.

What if the Victim Cannot Show Physical Damages?

Normally, negligence actions require not only a breach of the duty owed, but also damages that are a direct result of the breach. What are the damages here? The victim in this case will likely have to show what health complications, he suffered due to not receiving medical attention sooner or perhaps what emotional distress he was caused to suffer.

What do you think? Most will agree that burying or cremating a person that is not dead would constitute professional negligence but what about placing a live person inside a refrigerated morgue for almost an entire day? And, if it is negligence, what type of court award does the victim deserve?

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