Santa Ana, California. — A Southern California jury Tuesday awarded $1.5 million to the family of a man who wasresulting in a stranger being buried in the family vault.
A Superior Court jury found that the Orange County coroner’s office committed negligence and willful misrepresentation when it declared Frankie Kerrigan dead in 2017.
The office said Kerrigan, who was 57 at the time, had schizophrenia and often lived on the streets, died in May outside a store in Fountain Valley.
A police officer told the coroner’s office that he believed the body was Kerrigan’s based on previous contacts, and a deputy coroner misidentified him based on a photo of Kerrigan’s 11-year-old driver’s license.
The dead man’s fingerprints were sent to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and turned out to belong to another man, John Dean Dickens, 54. However, the fingerprint identification code was not verified due to a lack of training. employee in a new digital system, a coroner testified at the trial.
Authorities handed over a body to the family, who held a Catholic mass and an open coffin burial.
“I touched his hair and said goodbye,” testified Kerrigan’s father Francis Kerrigan at the Santa Ana trial.
But just over two weeks after the family was notified of Kerrigan’s death, a friend who was carrying the coffin at the funeral called his father to say that Kerrigan had shown up at his home.
Kerrigan said she was “very happy for about a minute” before thinking, “Oh my God, there’s a stranger in Frankie’s grave.”
The jury awarded $1.1 million to Francis Kerrigan and $400,000 to his daughter, Carole Meikle.
“This is a wake-up call for the county and every county out there,” Kerrigan’s father said. “It can happen to anyone.”
Norm Watkins, who represented the county, said there was no intention to mislead the family and that the county will decide whether to appeal the jury’s verdict.
Dickens, a Kansas native who died of heart disease, was exhumed from the family grave and his body returned to relatives.
Kerrigan is currently living in a hotel and has not been informed of the verdict, her family said.
James DeSimone, a lawyer who represented Kerrigan and Meikle, said Kerrigan is not taking her medication but is “relatively stable with a roof over her head”.
“If he has any inclination, there is a lawsuit going on, they fear he will just run away,” the lawyer said.
quotes DeSimone as saying, “We’re very grateful that the jury made this decision in less than three hours, so it looks like we’ve overwhelmingly proved our case in court and the jury agreed with us.
“The Kerrigan family feels vindicated and grateful that the story has been told and the jury has ruled in their favor. They really hope the verdict sends a message to both Orange County and other government agencies that they need to show care and concern for any one that has a Frankie or someone mentally ill and on the streets. You should do your due diligence and do your job in terms of communicating with a family, and especially when it’s to let them know that a family member is dead.”
“They put this family through unbelievable trauma,” added DeSimone. “They should have compensated the family five years ago.”