Family of Leeds woman, 25, whose badly decomposed body could not be examined suing hospital trust

The body of a 25-year-old Leeds woman so badly decomposed a pathologist could not examine it was "not treated with dignity or respect" by hospital staff, a court has heard.
Emily WhelanEmily Whelan
Emily Whelan

Emily Whelan's family suspect she was killed but when the pathologist came to examine her body, third party involvement was unable to ruled out because of decomposition.

She was found unresponsive in her bedroom in Leeds on November 7, 2016 and rushed by ambulance to Leeds General Infirmary (LGI).

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Medics told her family she had suffered an epileptic seizure, but they insisted that Emily had never had any significant issues with the condition she had managed since childhood.

She died in hospital the next day, on November 8, with an initial cause of death given as a hypoxic-ischaemic brain injury – lack of oxygen to the brain – after a cardiac arrest.

However, the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest was not determined and her family suspected foul play.

Emily's family claim her body was badly decomposed and unfit to be viewed when it was transferred from LGI to the Bradford Mortuary on December 23, 2016.

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They claim that hospital staff stored the body in a fridge instead of freezing it.

The family have sued both Bradford Council, which is responsible for the city's mortuary, and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the mortuary at LGI.

The Bradford Mortuary, who also only stored Emily’s body in a fridge, has accepted it breached the Human Rights Act as the body was not shown dignity and respect.

However, Leeds NHS Hospital Trust denies liability.

A letter to her heartbroken mother, Caramella Brennan, from Bradford mortuary said that Emily's body was "unrecognisable" when it was transferred from the hospital.

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The letter said: “Her face was already black. Her body had begun to mummify and mould growth was appearing on her face, torso and legs."

It suggested her body was so badly decomposed because it had not been frozen at the Leeds mortuary.

A forensic post mortem was ordered ten months after Emily's death, but a pathologist could not thoroughly examine her body as it had decomposed so badly.

Nick Brown, representing Emily's family, told Leeds County Court that LGI had breached Article 8 of the Human Rights Act: respect for private and family life.

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He said: "When someone dies, it is incredibly important to the bereaved that the body of a loved one is treated with appropriate dignity and respect.

"This is reflected in the rituals which every society treats the body of the dead with dignity and respect to honour their memory in the interval between when they die and when their body is buried, cremated or otherwise laid to rest.

"If the body of a loved one is not treated with dignity and respect it is extremely distressing."

The court heard that on October 1, 2017 Emily’s family were informed by a police officer that Emily’s body had decomposed and was "mouldy and unrecognisable".

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Her family was advised not to view Emily owing to its very poor physical state.

Mr Brown said Mrs Brennan suffered "psychiatric injuries" and was left with "distressing and grotesque images" in her mind of what Emily's body must have looked like.

He added: "It is an insult to the memory of the deceased and an insult to the bereaved. It is essentially saying the bereaved family is not worthy.

"The body of Emily had been allowed to decompose so badly that it was in the condition it was described to be in when it arrived at Bradford Mortuary.

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"The trust's staff allowed Emily's body to decompose to that state.

"They failed to treat Emily's body with the appropriate dignity and respect."

Giving evidence to the court, Mrs Brennan said that her daughter, who was Catholic, was denied an open casket due to the level of decomposition.

She told the court: "A police officer said to me that Emily's body is in a terrible state. You really don't want to go and see her.

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"She could never have had an open casket. People could not have gone to the chapel of rest and paid their respects because of the state of her body."

Speaking after the hearing today, a spokesperson for Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said: “The matter is being heard in the Leeds County Court.

"Liability is in dispute and it would be inappropriate for the Trust to comment further at this time.”

The hearing continues this week.