Unexpectedly Intriguing!
September 12, 2005

One of the great urban legends is the story of the man who is drugged into unconsciousness while on a business trip, who later wakes up in a strange bathtub filled with ice with a stitched-up incision in his abdomen. He later finds out that his kidneys have been extracted without his consent for sale on the black market.

A real-life variant of this story is currently playing out in Washington state, as claims have been filed against the King County Medical Examiner's Office (KCMEO) in the Pierce County Superior Court. The claims are the first step by the families of mentally-ill deceased people whose brains were "harvested" for medical research without the consent of either the deceased or their families to recover damages resulting from the KCMEO's practices. The extracted brain tissue was sold to a medical research facility in Maryland with the proceeds used to fund an additional pathologist on the KCMEO's payroll, as well as to cover other operating and equipment costs.

The Tacoma News Tribune has the details of the claims for the first of the claims to be filed (links added):

After Bradley Gierlich died in 1998, his brain traveled to Bethesda, Md., where it became the property of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, a nonprofit organization conducting research into mental illness, using brains retrieved from cadavers.

However, the King County man’s sister, Robinette Amaker of North Carolina, says the medical examiner’s office never obtained consent to remove her brother’s brain.

Her claim is the basis of a $500,000 lawsuit filed Friday in Pierce County Superior Court.

The suit names the King County medical examiner’s office and the medical institute.

Remarkably, in responding to the legal action, the King County Medical Examiner's Office is sticking to its previous claim that its brain "harvesting" operation involved no quotas and no profit, despite internal e-mails that contradict these assertions. KIRO-TV has some details:

A 2002 e-mail, written by the Medical Examiner office manager says: "As you know they county (h)as asked Public Health to take a reduction in CX (county funded dollars). One of the goals I would want in 2003 is to expand that outside funding to rely less on CX dollars."

That year the county collected a record amount of money for brains from Stanley $203,908.

It's difficult to see how the KCMEO's claim that it didn't profit from its brain brokerage arrangement with the Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI) will hold up as the government agency collected nearly $1.5 million (USD) over the 10 years between 1995 and 2004, for nearly 200 brains.

Negotiations to settle the legal claims between the families and King County have failed. The developing lawsuits may cost King County taxpayers "tens-of-millions-of-dollars," according to the KIRO report.

Perhaps that's just another cost of doing business for the privileged public officials of King County.

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