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Switched at Death: Identification Gone Wrong

Tragedy strikes every day on the roadways and at home. All across the country, people become seriously injured, and in some cases die, as a result of vehicle collisions, fires and other catastrophes. These incidents can be so devastating that it makes identifying victims a difficult task to undertake.

What happens when identification errors occur? Already insurmountable grief becomes an agonizing personal injury for family members once the error is discovered. In addition to dealing with a loved one’s death comes the added trauma of negligence committed by the agency responsible for properly identifying the deceased.

Duty to confirm identity

Under Georgia law, absent confirmation of positive identification through fingerprints, footprints, or unique physical characteristics, the medical examiner has a duty to chart or X-ray the victim’s teeth for a licensed dentist to identify.

Although the medical examiner has the primary responsibility to positively identify victims, s/he is not the only individual who may be liable when it comes to misidentification of loved ones. Others who may share in the liability of misidentification include:

  • State or county agencies
  • Law enforcement agencies
  • Emergency medical services
  • Hospitals and doctors
  • Coroners
  • Medical examiners
  • Funeral homes

Because some injuries are so catastrophic that it can make identification difficult, it is important that all protocols are followed to ensure correct identification. Errors cause unnecessary grief and emotional distress.

When identities become confused

Despite the duty to positively identify victims, there have been many situations where this did not occur:

  • In 2006, two teenage girls were involved in a car accident where one survived, and one didn’t. The fact that the girls looked very similar and the survivor was incredibly injured causing her face to swell and bruise led to the error in identification. While one family buried and grieved for who they believed was their daughter, the other sat vigil at the hospital bed of the child they believed was theirs. It wasn’t until weeks later that both families’ worlds were turned upside-down after discovering the error. No autopsy was performed and errors in identification were made that caused two families unnecessary heartache.
  • In 2017, an elderly California man held a funeral for his 57-year-old son who had been mentally ill and living on the streets. The man was told that his son had been positively identified through fingerprints so there was no need to view the body for identification. The family spent $20,000 on his funeral, he was buried near his mother, and family and friends were in attendance from around the country. Approximately two weeks later, the man’s son showed up very much alive. It turns out the fingerprint identification was unable to be performed and the man was actually identified through an old driver’s license photo. The family sued for incorrect identification, alleging negligence on the part of officials to do their due diligence because the man was homeless.
  • In 2019, there was another auto accident involving the deaths of two teenage girls whose identities were mixed up, resulting in both families filing lawsuits. As a result of the girls being misidentified at the scene, the families are now suing the Florida Highway Patrol, the Pensacola District Commander, Escambia County Coroner, Escambia County Medical Examiner’s Office and the funeral homes that handled the burials for both girls.
  • In February 2020, a fire in Monroe County, Georgia resulted in misidentification of a female victim. Authorities believed a mother had set fire to a home, killing her children. It was later determined who they believed to be the female victim was actually alive and captured while driving her mother’s vehicle. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will be responsible for confirming the identities of the two victims.

Getting the call that a family member has been killed is devastating. That the professionals entrusted to correctly identify victims and make proper notifications get it wrong is unthinkable. If your loved one has been killed, seek out guidance from the auto accident attorneys at Harris Lowry Manton LLP to gain an understanding of your legal rights. To schedule your free consultation with one of our client-centered personal injury attorneys, call our Savannah office at 912-651-9967, our Atlanta office at 404-961-7650, or reach out to us through our contact page to tell us your story.


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