Monday, June 27, 2011

San Mateo Bay Area News


REDWOOD CITY -- Coroner Robert Foucrault is being sued by another family over the handling of their child's remains.

Jerald and Sandra Wolkoff, of New York, said the coroner allowed a person unaffiliated with the county agency to take tissue from the brain stem of their son Steven Wolkoff, according to a suit filed Feb. 24 in San Mateo County Superior Court.

They responded with "shock and horror" when they learned his tissue had been cut into pieces and analyzed without their consent, according to the complaint. They seek an unspecified amount of damages.

Foucrault, when reached by phone Friday, said his office has done nothing wrong, and he was surprised to learn of the complaint. "My office and the county did everything according to law," he said. "We did everything proper."

Chief Deputy County Counsel Lee Thompson declined to comment Friday because he said his office had not yet been served with the suit.

The Wolkoffs are the second set of parents in recent years to sue Foucrault over the handling of their child's remains. Selina Picon, of Daly City, claimed the coroner illegally kept the heart of her 23-year-old son, Nicolas, after an autopsy. That suit was thrown out last May by the California 1st District Court of Appeal, which ruled she hadn't proved the Coroner's Office was obligated to get her consent to keep the organ. The state Supreme Court has declined to review that decision.

Wolkoff 30, died in a car crash in June 2008 in a car crash in June 2008 on Highway 1 near Pescadero and was autopsied by the San Mateo County Coroner's Office. 

Some of Wolkoff's brain tissue was kept after the procedure, but the family was notified of it. After Picon's suit was filed, Foucrault had adopted a policy of informing families when body parts are kept.

About a year after his death, Wolkoff's parents filed a lawsuit that claimed numerous people and agencies had been responsible. Among the defendants was American Medical Response, a company that contracts with San Mateo County to provide ambulance service.

As part of the company's response to the Wolkoff's first lawsuit, it hired Quest Discovery Services to collect evidence for the case. A Quest pathologist got Foucrault's permission to take some samples of Wolkoff's brain tissue.

The man's parents argue this violates state law, which they say prevents a coroner from turning over body parts to someone who is not a coroner for research.

The tissue, according to the suit, was taken not for the purpose of determining the cause of death, but to use it as part of the litigation, which violates "an obligation to protect the dignity of the human body in it's final disposition."

The Wolkoffs claim it was only by accident that they discovered their son's tissue had been taken. One of Foucrault's pathologists, during a deposition as part of the earlier lawsuit, disclosed that the body parts had been turned over to the pathologist working for the ambulance company.

Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335.