By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California appeals court has revived a malpractice suit brought by the family of an 80-year-old grandmother they claim was prematurely declared dead by doctors then frozen alive inside a body bag in the hospital's morgue.
A lower-court judge had dismissed the lawsuit brought in May 2012 by relatives of Maria de Jesus Arroyo against White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles over the woman's 2010 death, on grounds that the statute of limitations had lapsed.
But a three-judge panel of a state appeals court sided with the family on Wednesday in agreeing they could not have known how Arroyo was alleged to have died until it was brought to light by a pathologist in an expert opinion he gave in December 2011.
"Plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the hospital morgue," the court said in its 27-page opinion. The lawsuit now goes back to Los Angeles Superior Court.
The origins of the case date to July 26, 2011, when doctors at the hospital pronounced Arroyo dead from cardiac arrest shortly after she was brought there by ambulance.
Employees of a funeral home chosen by the family to pick up the woman's remains from the hospital morgue later discovered her lying face down in a body bag half-unzipped, with bruises and gashes to her face and a broken nose, according to the court record.
Informed by the mortuary of the body's condition, family members who had seen Arroyo's face without injuries just after she was pronounced dead assumed her corpse had been mishandled by hospital morgue workers.
The family went on to file a negligence suit in January 2011 claiming the hospital was to blame for mutilating their loved one's body.
But Dr. William Manion, a New Jersey pathologist, retained by the family as an expert witness reviewed medical records and sworn statements of hospital personnel and reached a far more horrific conclusion.
He said Arroyo had been prematurely declared dead and was placed alive in the freezer of the hospital morgue where she eventually regained consciousness due to the extreme cold and "damaged her face and turned herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb."
As a result, the family dropped its original lawsuit and filed a new claim accusing the hospital of malpractice and wrongful death.
"It really has to be your worst nightmare to wake up like that, the worst way to die," the family's lawyer, Scott Schutzman, said on Thursday. "Can you imagine trying to get out of a zippered bag?"
The hospital declined in a brief statement to comment on the case, except to say that "we continue to disagree with the allegations being made."
"We followed all proper protocols in the matter, and are confident that once the facts of the case are reviewed we will prevail in court," the statement said.
Schutzman said the family has "no choice" but to go to trial, as "there has never been a settlement offer in this case." He said he expects the case to reach trial within a year.
(Additional reporting by Tori Richards in Santa Ana, Calif.; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Diane Craft)