Reporting An Iowa Supreme Court Decision

Some Things Cost More Than Just An Arm and A Leg

A battle over a deceased individuals remains, specifically a deceased individual’s head, has raised some significant issues under the Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, the Final Disposition Act, and Iowa law pertaining to disinterments. Eventually, after a two-year battle, the court ruled in a 7 to 2 decision that the remains of Orville Richardson legally belonged to Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryopreservation company, over Richardson’s own family.

In 2004, Orville Richardson made the decision that his remains be left with Alcor Life Extension Foundation when he passed away. Richardson made this decision so that Alcor could cryopreserve his head when he passes away. Cryopreservation is defined as the process in which organs or any other or any other biological constructs are preserved in very low temperatures.

Richardson made this decision with “the hope of possible restoration to life and health at some time in the future.” In other words, Richardson was hoping future technology would allow Alcor to bring him back to life. However, along with costing Richardson his head, the agreement also cost him a staggering sum of $53,500.

Three years later, in 2007, Richardson eventually became “no longer capable of living independently due to the onset of dementia.” Because of this, David Richardson and Darlene Broeker, Orville’s brother and sister, filed a petition with the district court seeking appointment as Orville’s co-conservators. Within the petition, it was stated that Orville be cremated and that Alcor would simply “retain or dispose the cremated portion of Orville’s remains.”

This is because David and Darlene constantly opposed the idea of Orville donating his brain or entire head for cryopreservation. In fact, they “tried to talk him out of such a plan and they emphatically told him they would have nothing to do with his plan.” This is understandable as the idea of cryopreservation can be somewhat unsettling, especially when it involves a loved one. Assuming they had changed Orville’s mind, the topic was supposedly dropped, however, both David and Darlene had no idea Orville had actually entered into such agreements.

On May 27, 2008, David and Darlene notified Alcor through letter about their recent appointment as co-conservators of Orville.

A little less than a year later, on February 19, 2009, Orville passed away, which left some major decisions about his corpse to be made. Sticking to their original plan, David and Darlene had Orville cremated and then buried in Burlington, Iowa, just two days after his passing. Although Alcor had no knowledge of Orville’s passing and are entitled to his remains, they still walked away with $53,500. This ultimately left both parties content.

However, this mutual satisfaction didn’t last long as David wrote to Alcor requesting a full refund of Orville‘s lifetime membership payment on April 21, 2009, just two months after Orville‘s burial.

This letter stated: “Orville was my brother, and I‘m aware he contracted with you several years back in the amount of approximately $50,000 to provide a potential service following his death. Orville obviously did not utilize this service, and accordingly we request a refund of all funds to the Estate of Orville Martin Richardson.”

This enormous request stirred the hornet’s nest known as Alcor as just a week later not only did Alcor respond denying David’s request, but also questioning “why they were not notified of Orville‘s death so that it could follow Orville‘s wishes.” Shortly thereafter, Alcor demanded Orville’s remains.

As expected, David and Darlene denied Alcor’s request. This lead Alcor to file a motion in the probate court for an expedited hearing where Alcor argued that “Orville had made an anatomical donation to Alcor and that David and Darlene had no right to revoke it.” To further support this statement, they pushed the Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act that Orville signed during his original transaction as it “prohibits revocation of such a gift by anyone other than the donor” and “makes the rights of a procurement organization superior to the rights of all other persons.”

In addition, Alcor asked the district court to order David and Darlene to obtain a permit for the disinterment of Orville‘s body.

In resistance, David and Darlene argued that the transaction with Alcor was not covered by the Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act and that, according to the Final Disposition Act, they had the ultimate authority to dispose of Orville‘s remains.

Furthermore, they insisted that they had “no knowledge of the arrangement between Orville and Alcor and that Alcor failed to contact them during Orville‘s lifetime despite its knowledge of their appointment as his co-conservators.”

Both parties eventually presented their arguments in a hearing on June 8, 2009. Although no decision was originally made, the district court eventually made the decision to rule in favor of David and Darlene. Claiming that “David and Darlene are vested with the absolute right to control final disposition of Orville‘s remains after his death.”

Along with that, the district court also ruled that they had “no authority” to execute an application for a disinterment permit. Upset with the ruling, Alcor filed an appeal that focused on four issues: Whether Orville‘s arrangement with Alcor concerning the delivery of his body for cryonic suspension of his brain falls within Iowa‘s Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, whether Alcor, on the one hand, or David and Darlene, on the other, had the right to control the final disposition of Orville‘s remains, whether a court has the authority to order David and Darlene to execute a consent to disinterment, assuming that Alcor prevailed on the first two issues; and, if so, whether the district court should have exercised that authority under the facts and circumstances of this case.

In regards to first appeal, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act was originally created in 1968 and was intended to “encourage the making of anatomical gifts by eliminating uncertainty as to the legal liability of those authorizing and receiving anatomical gifts, while respecting dignified disposition of human remains.” However, perhaps the most significant contribution of the act was that individuals finally became empowered to donate their parts or their loved one‘s parts to save or improve the lives of others, which includes organs, eyes, and tissue.

Ironically, the act was revised in 2006, which was just a few years before this whole ordeal. The revision “intentionally disempowers families from making or revoking anatomical gifts in contravention of a donor‘s wishes.” In other words, this revision strengthened a donor’s decision as there is no reason to seek consent from the donor‘s family as they no longer hold right to give it legally.

Although the UAGA had the potential to solely win the case for Alcor, the argument rendered ineffective as it wasn’t enforced in Iowa until July 1, 2007, which was three years after Orville had entered into his arrangements with Alcor.

According to Iowa Code § 142C.5(1)(a), “an anatomical gift may be made to a hospital, accredited medical or osteopathic medical school, dental school, college, or university, organ procurement organization, or other appropriate person for research or education.”

This forced both parties to turn their focus onto whether or not Alcor is an “appropriate person for research such as to be able to receive anatomical gifts.” However, in Alcor’s favor, the California Court of Appeal determined in a separate case in 1992 that Alcor “could receive bodies under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.” However, this didn’t save Alcor from arguments facing them nearly 20 years later.

An anatomical gift is defined as “a donation of all or part of the human body effective after the donor‘s death, for the purposes of transplantation, therapy, research, or education.” As the definition states, a person must be making a donation or gift, which drew the question if Orville was knowingly making a donation or gift, as there must be “donative intent, delivery, and acceptance” in order to meet the requirements for a gift in Iowa.

Furthermore, since both Orville and Alcor were receiving something in exchange, it was questioned whether the transaction be classified as a gift or a bargain. A bargain involves a “transfer that is expressly conditioned on a reciprocal exchange”, which means it technically would not be covered by the UAGA.

This is important because based on Orville’s original documents with Alcor, “Orville‘s motivation was the possibility of being restored in the future to life and health, and Alcor was paid to to undertake that task.” It was also noted that the UAGA “empowered to donate their parts or their loved one‘s parts to save or improve the lives of others”, which focused on the fact that Orville’s agreement was not a donation to save or improve the lives of others.

The next issue was the interaction between the UAGA and the Final Disposition Act, especially since the FDA states that, in regards to an individual’s remains, “decedent‘s declaration has the highest priority”.

However, the district court ruled that Orville “did not execute a declaration covered by the Final Disposition Act, because a valid declaration must be executed on or after the law‘s effective date of July 1, 2008.” This ultimately meant that the rights of Alcor under RUAGA are superior to David and Darlene‘s dispositional rights under the Final Disposition Act.

As the case continued, the district court also determined that Alcor could not compel David and Darlene to seek a disinterment permit. Too seemingly make matters worse for Alcor, a state-issued permit still requires that the purpose of the disinterment be for “autopsy or reburial only”, which meant possibility of a successful disinterment of Orville’s remains seemingly diminished in David and Darlene’s favor.

However, after careful consideration, the district court made their final decision in Alcor’s favor. The court stated that “Orville clearly wanted to undergo cryonic suspension, and our state historically has ranked the decedent‘s preferences highly.”

They also ruled that “the record indicate that David and Darlene knew of Orville‘s decision to entrust his remains to Alcor at the time they arranged for burial, notwithstanding their assertion that they had not seen a contract between Alcor and Orville.” In other words, the court concluded that David and Darlene decided to bury Orville when they knew that he had made prior arrangements for his remains with Alcor.

David and Darlene argued, but the court was not persuaded by any means. Therefore, as noted in the introduction, on May 12, 2010, the court ruled in a 7 to 2 decision that the rights of Aclor’s legal documents and wishes of Orville outweighed the rights of the family. This ultimately meant that David and Darlene must file an application for a disinterment permit, as long as Alcor covered all costs. Along with that, the court ruled that Orville’s remains ultimately be placed in Alcor’s possession for the original intent of cryopreservation.

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