SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The parents of a south Georgia teenager found dead last year at school inside a rolled-up gym mat have sued the funeral home that handled his body, saying its owner and his employees wrongfully disposed of their son's internal organs and replaced them with wadded newspaper.
Attorneys for the family of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson of Valdosta accuse Harrington Funeral Home of fraud, negligence and intentional mishandling of a corpse in the civil lawsuit filed Jan. 31 in Lowndes County State Court. They are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Johnson was found dead Jan. 11, 2013, inside a rolled up mat in the corner of a gymnasium at his high school. Detectives for the Lowndes County sheriff concluded he died in a freak accident, having gotten stuck upside down in the mat while reaching for a gym shoe. But Johnson's family believes he was slain and had the body exhumed for a second autopsy last summer.
The private pathologist hired by Johnson's parents discovered his internal organs were all missing and the body cavity had been filled with newspaper.
The 22-page lawsuit says the funeral home committed "morally despicable, fraudulent, unlawful and unfair business practices" and even accuses owner Antonio Harrington and his employees of disposing of Johnson's organs "in an effort to interfere with the (parents') investigation" into their son's death.
Roy Copeland, the attorney for Harrington Funeral Home, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday. Neither did Chevene King, the lawyer for the teenager's parents, Kenneth and Jacquelyn Johnson.
It's still not clear what happened to Johnson's organs. They were removed during an autopsy by a state medical examiner after his death, but the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has insisted all organs were returned to the body before it was sent to the funeral home. Copeland has previously said the organs were missing when Johnson's body arrived at Harrington Funeral Home. And Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson has said many of the organs were too badly decomposed to be preserved and were discarded immediately after the autopsy.
Johnson's parents previously filed a complaint with the Georgia board that regulates funeral homes, saying Harrington showed disrespect by having newspaper placed inside their son's body. The Georgia Board of Funeral Service concluded Harrington violated no state laws, but also noted using newspaper to fill a body cavity was not considered a "best practice" and other materials are considered "more acceptable than newspaper."
The state medical examiner's autopsy concluded Johnson died from "positional asphyxia," meaning his body was stuck in a position that prevented him from breathing. The private pathologist hired by Johnson's family concluded he died from a blow to the neck near his carotid artery that appeared to be "nonaccidental."
Michael Moore, the U.S. attorney for middle Georgia, launched a review of the case last fall with assistance from the FBI. Their findings are still pending.