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$150,000 Award after New York Prisoner’s Family Denied Right of Sepulcher

$150,000 Award after New York Prisoner’s Family Denied Right of Sepulcher

by Mark Wilson

On February 6, 2014, a New York Court of Claims found that prison officials did not exercise reasonable efforts to locate a deceased prisoner’s next of kin before burying him in a prison cemetery.

William Loughlin was incarcerated at the Green Haven Correctional Facility when he died on August 27, 2011. Reverend Gideon Jebamani, the facility’s chaplain, attempted to notify Loughlin’s next of kin.

The prison computer system identified a son and daughter, but Jebamani could not find contact information for either. Since Loughlin was identified on the computer as being Jewish, Jebamani asked the prison’s Jewish chaplain, Imam Abdullah Wajid, to perform Jewish rites. Loughlin was then buried on the prison grounds.

About one month later, Wajid informed a prison counselor that they were unable to locate Loughlin’s relatives. The counselor reportedly asked if Jebamani had checked “old DIN numbers” for past incarcerations.

“Interest piqued, Wajid then opened Loughlin’s file, selected one of the search options – option no. 6, which searches other DIN numbers for the inmate – and immediately found contact information for Loughlin’s daughter,” the Court of Claims wrote. Wajid notified Jebamani, who said he was not aware of a search function that would reveal old DIN numbers.

Loughlin’s family first learned of his death in September 2011. His body was exhumed and re-buried in accordance with the family’s wishes, as he was Catholic and not Jewish. His children then filed a claim against the state, alleging prison officials had violated their right of sepulcher.

The Court found no material facts in dispute and concluded that “the dispositive question ... is whether defendant’s employees acted with reasonable diligence” in attempting to locate Loughlin’s next of kin.

Noting that Imam Wajid said it was “easy” to locate the daughter’s contact information, the Court of Claims held that “Defendant’s employees did not exercise reasonable efforts to locate Loughlin’s next of kin,” and “[a]ny reasonable inquiry would have revealed the contact information for his daughter stored in defendant’s records, a mere mouse-click away. That negligence was the sole proximate cause of his being buried without the knowledge of his family.”

The Court therefore granted summary judgment on the issue of liability and ordered a damages trial. Following that trial, on December 11, 2014 the Court awarded $75,000 to each of Loughlin’s two children who served as administrators of his estate, noting that “the improper handling of a decedent’s body necessarily involves emotional trauma to the next of kin – emotional damages are explicitly presumed without requiring the expert testimony in support of such a claim that would be required in every other case.”

The Court declined to award additional damages based on the prison’s decision to bury Loughlin in a Jewish service. See: Estate of Loughlin v. New York, NY Court of Claims, UID No. 2014-029-057, Claim No. 121996.

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Related legal case

Estate of Loughlin v. New York