The cremated remains of bodies donated for study at George Washington University's medical school — including two Marylanders — were misidentified and returned to the wrong families or buried without their permission, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court.
The lawsuit accuses the university of "gross mismanagement" of research cadavers and attempts to conceal its missteps. Baltimore attorney Cary Hansel, who is representing the family members of three people who donated their bodies, asked a judge to grant class-action status to allow more families to join the suit.
"There are almost certainly people out there who have the wrong remains in their possession," Hansel said.
Jeffrey Akman, the dean of George Washington's School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has acknowledged mismanagement of the body donor program. He said in a statement last February that the Washington school would not accept new bodies and had launched an internal review.
"Management of the willed body donor program was not consistent with the standards that donors and their families deserve," Akman said in the statement. "Despite exhaustive efforts, we have been unable to make a positive identification of certain donor bodies and as a result are unable to return ashes to some families who have requested them."
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, two Marylanders and a woman from Washington, are suing for $10 million each. Hansel has requested a jury trial.
"There has been no intent on the part of the university to mislead affected families," Candace Smith, a university spokeswoman, said in a statement Tuesday.
Officials had not been served with the lawsuit by Tuesday.
"We will address this lawsuit in an appropriate legal forum, not in the news media," the university's statement said.
Smith said in the statement that the medical school discovered problems with the cadaver program last fall, but she did not provide specific details.
The lawsuit alleges mistakes go back about seven years. Hansel said the families of more than 200 people could be affected since the school receives 30 to 40 bodies each year for study.
"This will affect people throughout the state," he said referring to Maryland.
"The university's conduct was so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency," the lawsuit states.
George Washington University had accepted cadavers to allow medical students to study bodies in anatomy class. A flier on the medical school's website encouraging people to donate their bodies states: "Only through the bequeathal of bodies to teaching universities can future physicians receive adequate training."
Eileen Kostaris' grandmother willed her body to the university. The 92-year-old spoke French, played the violin and died in spring of last year, according to the lawsuit. Kostaris of Montgomery County requested her grandmother's ashes be returned to the family after the studies.
Last February, someone from the university called Kostaris and told her there was a mix-up with some ashes; some were mislabeled and some weren't labeled at all, the lawsuit alleges.
"We would like to bring our grandmother home and let her rest in peace," Kostaris said in a statement from her attorney.
The mother of Alex Naar of Prince George's County died and her body was loaned to the university in 2013. Her voice box had been removed in surgery. A survey of the cadavers in 2015 found one woman whose voice box was gone, but that body was donated in 2015.
"This means her body was either interred without permission of given to the wrong family," the lawsuit alleges.
Mary Powell of Washington was given a box that supposedly contained her mother's ashes. Records that came with the box, however, stated cremation was in December, a month before officials assured Powell her mother's body still was being used, the lawsuit claims.
"The university failed to ensure that identification tags were kept with the bodies. Tags were removed from bodies when they were transported to laboratories for study and [bodies] were returned to the morgue without tags," according to the lawsuit.
The manager of the body donation program no longer works for the university, Akman said in the February statement.
Smith said George Washington will continue to work with affected families.