Ruling Against Autopsy in New Jersey Asbestos Case

SPOTSWOOD, NJ—A New Jersey appeals court has reaffirmed a decision by a New Brunswick judge denying two corporations access to the body of Harold St. John for autopsy purposes.

St. John died in February, at the age of 67, from the asbestos-related cancer known as mesothelioma.
Superior Court Judge Philip Paley had previously ruled that the defendants in the case – Honeywell International and Chrysler Motor Corporation – did not have “a sufficient basis from which to conclude that retrieval of lung tissue samples would likely lead to evidence of such significance that a limited autopsy should be ordered over the objections of Mr. St. John’s family.”

Honeywell and Chrysler were among over one dozen companies named in a lawsuit by St. John and his family. The suit contended that St. John became ill with mesothelioma after working in an auto-repair shop in the 1950s and 1960s.

Two days before the suit was set to begin, St. John died. His wife, Diana, and other family members opposed an autopsy on religious and moral grounds, stating also that St. John himself would have objected to an autopsy. Yet on March 4, the day St. John was scheduled to be laid to rest, an order was granted compelling the body’s return to the funeral home pending a decision regarding the defendants’ request for an autopsy.

The St. John family had accepted settlements with all but six of the companies named in the lawsuit. Honeywell, Chrysler and the other defendants denied that automotive parts had been a crucial factor in St. John’s contracting mesothelioma. Prosecuting lawyer Moishe Maimon argued that compelling studies have linked auto parts and asbestos exposure.

Mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer which typically affects the lungs, is almost always diagnosed after prolonged exposure to asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos, a carcinogenic material which has been widely used in the manufacture of building and auto-parts materials, has been phased out of many current products but remains predominant in older structures. Although the dangers of asbestos have been known for years, companies are accused of having withheld this information from workers, knowingly exposing them to mesothelioma and other diseases.

Judge Paley held a three-day hearing into the case at the request of the appeals court, but in a ruling made March 12, 2009, found that the family’s objections to autopsy took precedence over the corporations’ need to obtain lung tissue material from St. John in order to determine whether or not asbestos exposure from their products had caused his mesothelioma.

Both the St. John family and Maimon called the appeals court’s ruling a victory for all mesothelioma sufferers.