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Hale v. Brown

Supreme Court of Arizona

April 9, 1958

Delcie L. HALE, Appellant,
Gorden N. BROWN and Curtis Page, dba Brown & Page Mortuary, and American Zinc, Lead & Smelting Co., a corporation, Appellees.

[84 Ariz. 62] Herbert B. Finn, Phoenix, for appellant.

Snell & Wilmer, Phoenix, for appellee mortuary.

McCarty & Chandler, Tucson, for corporate appellee.

UDALL, Chief, Justice.

The trial court found, after considering the voluminous record before it--which

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included the pleadings, depositions, transcripts of two hearings before the Industrial Commission (108 pages), the transcript (45 pages) of a so-called coroner's inquest held some nine months after death, and several affidavits--that there were no genuine issues as to any material fact to be tried, and hence it held both defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This appeal followed.

A chronological factual statement of the uncontroverted facts is necessary to a proper understanding of the real problem presented by this appeal. On a motion for summary judgment, it is rare that we have as complete a record as is presented in this case.

William Allan Hale died June 23, 1952, while employed at the Hilltop mine near Portal, Arizona, by American Zinc, Lead and Smelting Company (being one of the defendants-appellees to this action), hereinafter referred to as either the 'employer' or 'American Zinc'. Decedent became ill and died during the lunch hour, shortly after coming to the surface. Death ensued before any medical aid arrived.

Shortly thereafter Dr. M. C. Pugsley, a local retired army doctor who was acquainted with and had treated decedent during his lifetime, appeared and after making some inquiries and a cursory examination of the body diagnosed the cause of death as 'acute cardiac failure'. T. W. Cooke, Justice of the Peace and ex officio coroner of the adjacent Bowie precinct, stated he was called on June 23, 1952 by the Sheriff's office and was told that Coroner [84 Ariz. 63] Martin of Douglas was not available; hence he was requested to get a doctor and go to the Hilltop mine where a man had died. They arrived there about 3:30 p. m. Dr. Farrish examined the body of decedent and concluded he had died of natural causes (cardiac trouble) and that there was no need for an inquest. The doctor issued a permit for removal of the body--making a notation thereon that the body was to be held for an autopsy (this latter point was disputed)--as at that time the mine superintendent indicated the employer would probably want such an examination. Late that afternoon Gordon N. Brown, one of the co-owners of the Page & Brown Mortuary of Douglas (the other defendant-appellee), hereinafter referred to as 'Mortuary', came to the mine for the express purpose of removing the body to the Mortuary. Marian Howard, the 27-year-old married daughter of decedent, who at the time was handling the arrangements, had called Gordon N. Brown and requested that he do so. While at the mine Brown was handed the removal permit issued by Dr. Farrish. The body was removed to the Mortuary and immediately thereafter (at about 7 p. m.), without express authorization from the coroner or any member of decedent's family, the Mortuary took the preliminary steps in embalming by injecting a preservative fluid. Undertaker Brown admits he had no express authorization to do this but seeks to justify such action by pointing out that it was summertime, decomposition had set in and that customarily in the trade morticians do not bother to obtain authorization from the family to embalm. Upon her examination at the coroner's inquest Marian Howard stated her brother was present on that occasion and there is no showing that he objected thereto.

Dr. Alessi of Douglas, the Hale family physician, stated he was advised the family wanted a post-mortem examination for the purpose of determining the cause of death, particularly as to whether decedent had suffered gas poisoning. Upon inquiry he found the employer was no longer insisting on an autopsy nor would it pay for same. He advised the family to get a qualified pathologist and was instructed to call Dr. George O. Hartman of Tucson, which was done that evening. By the next morning at 8 a. m. there was delivered to the Mortuary a written authorization, signed by the widow, for such post-mortem examination. At about 5:30 p. m. on June 24th, Dr. Hartman arrived at the Mortuary and in the presence of two local doctors, Dr. Alessi and Dr. Guy B. Atonna, this specialist performed a routine autopsy

Page 957

and his diagnosis as to cause of death was: 1. coronary occlusion; 2. arteriosclerosis. It manifestly appears that Dr. Hartman made the post-mortem examination completely at the direction of plaintiff and none of the defendants had anything to do with such [84 Ariz. 64] examination. After that the Mortuary completed the embalming without objection on the part of anyone, a funeral was held and the body was buried. The certificate of death dated June 26, 1952 and signed by Dr. Alessi, gives the cause of death as 'coronary thrombosis'.

On August 20, 1952 a claim for death benefits under the Workmen's Compensation Act, A.R.S. § 23-901 et seq. was filed with the Industrial Commission by decedent's widow and a minor son, on the theory that decedent came to his death as a result of an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment. After several hearings the Commission, on November 23, 1953, reaffirmed its previous awards denying compensation. On review we affirmed on the basis of a procedural defect that made the award res judicata. Hale's Estate v. Industrial Commission, 78 Ariz. 202, 277 P.2d 1014.

An unverified complaint, in the instant case, was filed against defendants on September 29, 1953 by the widow, Delcie L. Hale, and decedent's three children by a previous marriage--only one of whom was then a minor. It appears from the motion to set aside summary judgment that at the hearing on the motion for summary judgment the court ordered stricken the names of the three children as party plaintiffs, thereby leaving the widow (being the real party in interest) as the sole plaintiff. No assignment of error is predicted upon this ruling. Therefore Delcie L. Hale will be referred to either as the plaintiff or widow. While there is only one count to the complaint, on the face thereof it does appear to have two elements, (1) a charge of wrongful embalmment against the Mortuary, and (2) that defendants, Mortuary and American Zinc, conspired to embalm the body of decedent in order to remove and suppress evidence as to the cause of death so that plaintiffs would be unable to obtain death benefits under the Workmen's Compensation Law. Actually, as will be shown, the two matters are inextricably entwined. In any event the complaint was held sufficient by the trial court, as against defendants' separate motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The correctness of that ruling is not an issue to be determined by this appeal. Both answers were in effect general denials. Thereafter defendants made separate motions for summary judgment, and on June 6, 1955 a hearing was had thereon at the conclusion of which both motions were granted. The following day a formal judgment was entered that plaintiff take nothing. This appeal followed.

Plaintiff's first assignment of error is that the court was without jurisdiction to grant either of the motions for summary judgment because the Mortuary had not complied with the provisions of [84 Ariz. 65] Rules Civil Procedure, Rule 56(c), 16 A.R.S. (then section 21-1212 A.C.A.1939) which required that such a motion, with its supporting affidavits, be filed ten days prior to a hearing thereon. No authority is cited in support of this contention, furthermore this objection is being raised here for the first time. The record is devoid of any objection on the part of plaintiff to this early hearing nor was a motion for continuance made. It is well settled that a party cannot gamble on the court's ruling by submitting a matter without objection and then, following an adverse ruling complain. It is interesting to observe that the transcripts of prior hearings, and many of the affidavits now relied upon by the parties were introduced on the day of the hearing. Furthermore it was not until that day that the plaintiff's complaint, now so strongly relied upon, was belatedly verified by Marian Howard, the married daughter. We hold there is no merit to this assignment, as the failure of the Mortuary to strictly comply with this rule of court was not jurisdictional.

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Considering next the validity of the trial court's granting of summary judgments in favor of defendants. This matter was governed by Rule 56(c), Rules Civil Procedure as it then appeared in Section 21-1212, A.C.A.1939. There have been numerous pronouncements of this court interpreting this Rule, determining when a motion for summary judgment should or should not be granted:

'The law is well settled that a summary judgment should never be entered unless the facts are clear and undisputed. If there is a controversy on a factual question, judgment should be withheld until proof has been made.' Phoenix Feed & Seed Co. v. Adams 78 Ariz. 292 at page 293, 279 P.2d 447, 448.

'The facts alleged in the complaint are not the sole factors to be considered in passing on the motion for summary judgment; all those shown by the record as it stands when the motion is made, or submitted, enter into the matter.' Suburban Pump & Water Co. v. Linville, 60 Ariz. 274, at page 283, 135 P.2d 210, 213.

Justice Windes, speaking for a unanimous court in the case of Stevens v. Anderson, 75 Ariz. 331, at page 333, 256 P.2d 712, 713, gives a most comprehensive statement of the governing principles that are directly apropos to our problem in the present case, viz.:

'When motion for summary judgment is presented, it becomes the duty of the trial court to examine the entire record and determine whether there is any disputed material fact which if true could have a bearing on the kind of final judgment which under the law [84 Ariz. 66] should be rendered. If it appears that competent evidence will be submitted tending to prove or disprove such material fact, the determination of the existence thereof must depend upon the evidence submitted at the trial. The court does not try issues of fact, but only whether the same are genuine and in good faith disputed. The mere general statement in a pleading, when attacked by such motion supported by proof of specific facts in the form of affidavit or deposition, places on the author of the statement the obligation to present something which will show that when the date of trial arrives, he will have some proof to support the allegation in the pleading. He cannot withhold this showing until the time of trial. He has not the right to say that he has made a negative or contradictory allegation and has therefore created a genuine issue and might have evidence to support it. * * * To permit such proceeding would defeat the very purpose of summary jugment practice. * * * This practice was established for protection atainst compelling one to submit to the delay, expense and harassment of litigation upon mere assertions, when it is shown that competent evidence cannot be presented to prove same.' (Emphasis supplied.)

With these yardsticks to guide us let us first determine whether, from the entire record, there is in truth and in fact a bona fide claim for relief against the Mortuary solely for wrongful embalmment of decedent's body. As an abstract proposition counsel for the Mortuary concedes that by the great weight of authority a cause of action will lie for wrongful embalming. See, 15 Am.Jur., Dead Bodies, section 6; and this right vests in the surviving spouse, section 9 (15 Am.Jur., supra). The following from the Restatement of Torts, section 868 'Interference with Dead Bodies', comment b, states the basis upon which recovery is usually allowed:

'The cause of action is primarily for mental suffering caused by the improper dealing with the body. It includes also the right to recover damages for physical harm resulting from such mental suffering.' (Emphasis supplied.)

Page 959

If this were actually a cause of action for wrongful embalming the complaint would doubtless have indicated wherein the wrongful act caused mental anguish. Surely, somewhere in this voluminous record, all of which was presumably considered at the hearing on the motions there would be facts stated that would indicate the claimed wrongful mutilation[84 Ariz. 67] or indignities inflicted upon the body of decedent. There is nothing resembling such a claim anywhere in the record. There is nothing to show or indicate displeasure with the Mortuary's technique of embalming; that plaintiff did not intend this Mortuary to embalm the body or that any objection was made to the completion of the embalming after the autopsy and befor burial; that such acts caused any mental anguish or suffering as a result of the alleged improper dealing with decedent's body. The only grievance complained of is that the body was embalmed without express permission, prior to the autopsy, thus preventing their obtaining an unadulterated blood sample so as to establish decedent died from gas poisoning. That the time of embalming and not the wrongfulness thereof is the gist of the complaint is shown by the admissions of plaintiff in her deposition:

'Q. Did any of the children ever complain to you about the body being either dissected, cut up, mutilated, ...

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