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Judge dismisses lawsuits against Harvard over sale of body parts from its morgue

Ruling says the school is protected by an immunity clause and not responsible for employee’s conduct; plaintiffs’ lawyers plan appeal.

Harvard Medical School.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A Suffolk Superior Court judge on Monday dismissed all the lawsuits against Harvard Medical School over the theft of body parts from its morgue, saying that the allegations from donors’ families “do not plausibly suggest” that Harvard failed to act in good faith and do not show Harvard was responsible for its morgue manager’s conduct.

Forty-seven close relatives of people who donated their bodies to the medical school to educate students had brought 12 suits accusing Harvard of failing to protect the human remains, after the morgue’s manager, Cedric Lodge, was arrested on charges of stealing and selling parts of bodies that were supposed to be cremated.

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Plaintiffs’ lawyers said they planned to appeal. And the decision angered some relatives of donors, who criticized Harvard for dodging responsibility.

“Bravo, Harvard. You’ve just denigrated and undermined all the intent of people that wanted to donate their bodies for good,” said Jennie DunKley, whose late husband, Barry, had donated his body. “I am absolutely horrified.”

“By even fighting these lawsuits, Harvard is undermining the entire system,” added DunKley, of Easton. Her husband, who died of cancer in 2018, donated his body in the hope of advancing science. By failing to “own up to” the conduct of its employees, she said, Harvard is discouraging others from donating and potentially slowing scientific progress.

Harvard declined to comment.

Kathryn Barnett of Morgan & Morgan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, vowed to appeal, saying in a statement: “These families have had to relive the trauma of losing their loved ones many times over, and we strongly believe that they deserve a day in court. We will appeal this ruling and keep fighting for them to win justice.”

The macabre scandal exposed an obscure underworld of commerce in human skin, bones, and organs, and raised questions about oversight of medical schools’ anatomical gifts programs.

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People donate their bodies to Harvard’s Anatomical Gift Program with the understanding that they will be used to teach medical students and sometimes for research. Then, the bodies would be cremated and the ashes returned to the family if they wish. Harvard asserted that the bodies were used for their intended purpose, and the thefts occurred after they were returned to the morgue.

Responding to Harvard’s motion to dismiss the suits, Judge Kenneth W. Salinger noted that the school is protected by an immunity clause in the Massachusetts version of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. To get around that immunity, the plaintiffs would have to show that Harvard had not acted in good faith in its handling of donated bodies, and the judge found that they had failed to do so.

Some plaintiffs’ assertions that the school “knew or should have known” about Lodge’s activities were not sufficient to show lack of good faith, Salinger wrote. He determined that the university is not “legally responsible for Mr. Lodge’s alleged misconduct.”

In June, federal prosecutors accused Lodge of stealing and selling body parts taken from cadavers at the morgue, and allowing others from outside the university to enter the morgue and select human remains for purchase, over a five-year period starting in 2018.

Several others have also been charged in connection with the scheme and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and interstate transport of stolen goods. All are scheduled to stand trial starting Aug. 5 in Pennsylvania.

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Salinger acknowledged that the plaintiffs “are understandably horrified that the physical remains of their loved ones may have been abused and desecrated after HMS [Harvard Medical School] completed its educational or research use of those remains.” But he said the plaintiffs failed to show that “HMS employees are allowed to remove, keep, or sell human body parts, or that HMS gave Lodge permission to do so.”

Most of the plaintiffs against Harvard have also filed claims against Lodge. All sued the president and fellows of Harvard College, and some also named as defendants Mark Cicchetti, managing director, and Tracey Fay, manager, of the Anatomical Gift Program at Harvard. Salinger ruled that Harvard, Fay, and Cicchetti are all protected by the immunity clause, but Lodge is not.

Barnett, who represented the families, called the decision “a get out of jail free card for any school that wants to run any kind of [anatomical gift] program.” She asserted in an interview that Harvard turned a blind eye to years of problems.

“That is not an honest belief that things are going well. That’s ‘I’m not looking. I don’t want hear about it.’”

According to Barnett, the judge’s ruling implies that medical schools are free to open such programs and “you can never be liable as long as you don’t look. Who would ever donate their remains if that was the law?”

“My clients are devastated,” Barnett said. They hope most of all to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, but this decision does the opposite, she said.

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But one of the plaintiffs, Jack Porter, said the judge made a strong case. “Is Harvard to blame or is Mr. Lodge? Who’s responsible?” he said. “That’s the key question — if Harvard knew about it. … How can you prevent it if you had a bad employee?”

Still, Porter, who is a research associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said it was upsetting that his wife’s remains may have been desecrated after she donated her body in 2017. When he visits her daughter in Ukraine, he doesn’t plan to tell her about it.

Glenn Wilder, whose father “was a big fan of helping people,” donated his body to Harvard in 2019, when he died at age 85. “I’m disgusted by it, to have them not be held responsible for their negligence,” he said of the judge’s decision.

Wilder’s family owns what he said is the country’s oldest tire dealership, in Scituate, and at his father’s request, he put the box with his father’s ashes on the shelf in the garage of the business. But now he’s not sure what’s in it.

“That’s one of things that upsets me so much,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s all of him, part of him — if it’s even him.”

Sean Cotter of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her @felicejfreyer.