City of Key West v. Knowles, 948 So.2d 58 (Fla. 3d DCA Jan 10, 2007)

I think cases involving dead bodies often end up getting appealed because families find it hard to believe how limited a person’s legal rights are with respect to the remains of his or her loved ones. This issue received national attention in Florida during the Anna Nicole Smith case, as chronicled on this blog (see here) and by Prof. James T.R. Jones of the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, in an article entitled Anna Nicole Smith and the Right to Control Disposition of the Dead.

In the linked-to case a surviving widow, Lorraine Knowles, filed a federal section 1983 claim against the City of Key West and its former Cemetery Sexton, Gilbert Suarez, on the grounds, among other things, that she was deprived of a property interest in her husband’s buried remains without due process.  The 3d DCA ruled that the trial court should have granted the City’s motion for directed verdict because the surviving widow lacked a protected property interest in her dead husband’s body.  Here’s the key language from the linked-to opinion:

To determine whether a property interest exists, for purposes of a section 1983 claim, we must look to state law. Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972); Crocker, 778 So.2d at 984 (citing Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 96 S.Ct. 2074, 48 L.Ed.2d 684 (1976)). “[I]n Florida there is a legitimate claim of entitlement by the next of kin to possession of the remains of a decedent for burial or other lawful disposition.” Crocker, 778 So.2d at 988. These rights to a deceased’s remains, however, exist only for purposes of burial, or for other statutory purposes, and nothing further. Id. See Lascurain v. City of Newark, 349 N.J.Super. 251, 793 A.2d 731 (2002). Thus, for purposes of a section 1983 claim, constitutionally protected property interest to decedent’s remains ends at the point of burial or other lawful disposition. Any claims for events occurring thereafter must be pursued under traditional common law causes of action. See Crocker, 778 So.2d at 987-88. In this case, Knowles’s complaint arises solely from events after the lawful burial of her husband. Hence, there is no constitutionally protected property interest on which Knowles can rest her section 1983 claim under the facts of this case. Therefore, the trial court should have granted the City’s directed verdict motion as the close of Knowles’s evidence.