Attorneys from Burg Simpson received a $58 million verdict in Arizona on behalf of 10 to 21 plaintiffs affected by a body part harvesting scheme.
The verdict was delivered Tuesday by a jury in Maricopa County, Arizona. The owners of Biological Resource Center had faced a lawsuit for fraud, outrageous conduct and mishandling of bodily remains, with the jury finding for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs were awarded $5 million each in punitive damages and shared the remaining $8.5 million in compensatory damages. The verdict is believed to be among the largest personal injury verdicts in Arizona history. And despite the unusual facts of the case, it shares similarities with another in Colorado that Burg Simpson is also litigating.
A group of plaintiffs had claimed Biological Resource Center had held itself out to be a legitimate body donation center where bodies could be donated for medical research. The FBI raided the center in 2014 and found it had been illegally selling donated bodies on the black market.
According to Burg Simpson partner David TeSelle, who represented the plaintiffs in the four-week trial along with Michael Burg and Holly Kammerer from Burg Simpson, many of the people who chose to donate their bodies to Biological Resource Center were told their remains would be used for medical research — often to study or develop surgical procedures to fight the illnesses they would die from. Instead, body parts were often sold for other purposes to buyers around the world. According to various news reports following the FBI raid, the donated bodies would be cut up and sold to buyers around the world for thousands or millions of dollars.
The complaint filed in the lawsuit provides a list of horrific acts committed by Biological Resource Center staff, including mutilation and at least one Frankenstein-like operation where parts from different bodies were sewn together.
“What the jury latched onto was not just the titillating facts but once the bodies were donated, they were going to be placed with a research facility, but in many cases they were chopped into parts and sold to body brokers,” TeSelle said. In 90% of instances, TeSelle said, the defendant, Stephen Gore, couldn’t account for where many of the bodies had gone or what they were used for. “Family members were promised they were going to be used for some positive thing and he was just selling them to body brokers for a profit.”
Biological Resource Center was involved in 10 lawsuits in Illinois and Arizona as well as an insurance lawsuit regarding its legal defense financing. Criminal proceedings involving Gore are still underway.
The case is now going on to an insurance coverage fight. TeSelle said Arizona law allows for coverage for punitive damages and he believes the total verdict should be covered.
Burg Simpson is also representing 50 claimants in a lawsuit against Montrose company Sunset Mesa Funeral Home. The FBI in 2018 raided Sunset Mesa and found it had been running a similar “body brokerage” in which it was selling body parts and giving families concrete or false ashes as cremated remains. That case is still in its early stages.
In 2018, Colorado passed a law intended to reduce the sale of body parts by banning owners of tissue banks from owning other businesses that “provide for the final disposition of human remains” such as funeral homes or crematories.
— Tony Flesor