CHICAGO — As he suffered from spindle cell sarcoma, Jacob Sandersfeld told his mother that he’d like to donate his body to medical research.
A day after her son died in June 2014 at age 23, Poplar Grove resident Dawn Carroll carried through with his wishes, signing a form authorizing that his body be donated to Biological Resource Center of Illinois so it could be used for medical education or research.
She was led to believe that the remains would be treated with dignity and wouldn’t be dismembered or sold for profit, Carroll alleges in a lawsuit filed last week.
Against the family’s wishes, several medical businesses harvested and mishandled Sandersfeld’s remains, possibly for profit, the lawsuit alleges.
Carroll’s lawsuit is the latest in a series of at least a half-dozen cases filed in Cook County against Biological Resource Center of Illinois and a group of connected companies, which are being investigated by the FBI. A trial is expected to begin later this year in Michigan for a man charged in connection with the federal investigation.
The companies “held themselves out to the general public as being dedicated to the collection and study of donor bodies solely for medical and scientific purposes,” states the lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court. In reality, the suit alleges, Biological Resource Center of Illinois, Cremation Services Inc., the Arthroscopy Association of North America, International Biological Inc. and others were partners in an enterprise of “illegally collecting, harvesting and trafficking of human body parts for profit.”
Katherine Cardenas of the Lucas & Cardenas law firm in Chicago said she has four cases pending in Cook County against Biological Resource Center of Illinois. In one of the cases, Catherine Senderak, of Schaumburg, alleges she learned that federal agents confiscated a box of the remains of Joseph Senderak, her late husband, during an investigation and that those remains did not include his head or parts of his arms.
An ongoing lawsuit with similar allegations against some of the parties was filed in 2015 in Cook County and is seeking class-action status, according to Krislov Law, which represents plaintiffs in that case.
Pequeena Dixon believes her father’s remains were treated as a “profit machine,” according to Krislov attorney Kenneth Goldstein. The lawsuit seeks to represent all families that were affected.
On its website, the FBI asks that donor families or organizations that acquired human remains from five companies — including Biological Resource Center Inc., of Arizona; Biological Resource Center of Illinois, in Rosemont; and International Biological, of Detroit — provide information to the FBI that could help its investigation.
“Due to the large number of donor families and end users potentially affected, the FBI will only contact respondents who indicate that they would like to be contacted,” the FBI says on its website.
A trial is expected to start in September for a suburban Detroit man who owned and ran International Biological, FBI spokesman Tim Wiley said. Arthur Rathburn is accused of wire fraud, making false statements and transporting hazardous materials, including putting eight human heads that he said were embalmed but weren’t on a Delta Cargo flight, according to an indictment last year in a U.S. District Court in Michigan. The trial was scheduled for February but was postponed after Rathburn sought a new lawyer.
One of his new lawyers, James Howarth, of Detroit, said his client is innocent of the charges.
“What one person thinks is compliant with hazardous materials (rules), another person may disagree with,” Howarth said, adding that Rathburn has said that he “complied in every respect, and he looks forward to vindicating his good name.”
“It’s a difficult case because it deals with a sensitive subject: human body parts,” Howarth said. “A fair and impartial jury will be key to the case because a lot of people get squeamish and tend to think he’s guilty because it’s a sensitive area.”
The authorization form Carroll signed required Biological Resource Center of Illinois to cremate Sandersfeld’s remains after any scientific study and to return the cremated remains to the family. The following month, she received a box of ashes “purporting” to be her son’s, according to her lawsuit.
In April 2015, however, she learned that some of Sandersfeld’s remains were kept by the defendants, which, according to the lawsuit, also cast doubt on the authenticity of the cremated remains.
Carroll, who is seeking a jury trial, alleges intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, wrongful disposition of a body, common-law fraud, violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act and civil conspiracy.
Selling a body isn’t necessarily against the law, said Sheldon Kurtz, a University of Iowa law professor who helped write an update to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, the law that governs the donations of organs.
“It is illegal under federal law and state law to sell organs for use in transplants or in therapy, but the act doesn’t address whole bodies,” Kurtz said.
But even if selling a body is legal, that might not shield companies from other types of liability, he said.
“All of these are mere allegations, but saying, ‘You promised to do the following and you didn’t,’ that’s a classic example of breach of contract or deceptive practices,” Kurtz said.
Added Goldstein, the lawyer in the case seeking class action: “Our case is focused on the fraud that donors were not told how the body would be treated, with a lack of respect, that the body would be essentially mutilated, and the parts would be sold, stored for an indefinite time, and that the donors weren’t informed of the process enough to make an informed decision.”
Biological Resource Center of Illinois and the Arthroscopy Association couldn’t be reached for comment. Cremation Services, of Schiller Park, referred calls to its lawyer, who couldn’t be reached for comment. Illinois incorporation records show Biological Resource Center of Illinois and Cremation Services are registered at the same Schiller Park address.
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