The families of two Florida teens killed in a car crash last summer say they’ve been robbed of a proper grieving after authorities reportedly misidentified the victims’ remains, with one of the girl’s organs being harvested without permission.
The families of Samara Cooks, 15, and Deleigha Gibson, 18, are now suing the Florida Highway Patrol over the troubling mix-up that led to the teens’ bodies being sent to the wrong funeral homes, the Pensacola News Journal reports. The suit, filed in Escambia County Circuit Court Thursday, March 5, also names the county medical examiner’s office and two funeral homes as defendants.
“I just really wish that they treated her with dignity,” Cooks’ mother, Ranada Cooks, told the newspaper. “Let her go out like a lady.”
Cooks and Gibson were traveling along a rural Escambia County road with two other friends in the wee hours of July 29, 2019, when their car suddenly lost control, swerving into another lane and hitting a pole before slamming into a tree line. One victim was ejected from the car.
Cooks and Gibson died at the scene. The two other passengers — 20-year-old Daichunique Lavender and 18-year-old Renee Banks — survived the wreck and were taken to a local hospital in critical condition.
A complaint filed by Ranada Cooks alleges FHP recovered Gibson’s ID at the crash scene, but wrongly tagged the teen as her daughter. And Samara was wrongly tagged as Gibson.
Her lawsuit further underscores the fact that, “Samara Cooks and Deleigha Gibson were different ages and had different heights, weights, and physical appearances.” It adds that Gibson, not Cooks, was a registered organ donor. Yet it was Cooks’ organs that were removed.
“There is a lack of candor and dignity involved with the public entities that we’re suing,” Artie Shimek, an attorney for the Cooks family, told reporters at a news conference Friday. “They callously disregarded the rights, would not cooperate, [and] would not tell these families anything during a time of unimaginable grief. A time that should be sacred.”
The suit says Ranada Cooks has suffered nightmares, extreme stress and anxiety as a result of the “unauthorized invasion” of her daughter’s body. Gibson’s family filed a separate complaint, in which the victim’s mother claims she suffered “mental deterioration” due to the ordeal.
Both families accuse the Escambia County Medical Examiner’s Office of mislabeling Samara’s and Deleigha’s remains, and claims it did not allow them to view the teens’ bodies. To add insult to injury, the office released the wrong bodies to the funeral homes, leading to the wrong victim being embalmed.
It wasn’t until Ranada Cooks arrived at the funeral home ahead of her daughter’s wake that she realized there had been a mistake.
“When I was allowed to visit with her, I was robbed of that first chance of viewing her because I did walk in and see Ms. Deleigha,” she said Friday. “It was not Samara.”
Her lawyer argued that had the medical examiner allowed the family access to the bodies, the error would’ve been discovered right away.
“But because they didn’t do that, the process of misidentification and disregard of (the families’) rights kept on,” Shimek said.
After being made aware of the mistake, the families claim funeral home staff tried to switch the bodies back without them knowing. Gibson’s dad, Demetrius Gibson, said he was most upset that his daughter’s last wishes weren’t honored.
“It was real brave of her to want to be an organ donor,” he told the News Journal. “For her not to get her last wish to maybe help a number of people, maybe even save someone’s life, help someone out, is unfortunate.”
The families’ are seeking unspecified damages in the incident. Both said they won’t stop pressing officials for answers as to how something like this happened.
“We want answers for how this happened, why this happened and what we all want as a result of this is to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Jessica Givens of the Cochran Firm told Atlanta Black Star.
Givens, who’s representing the Gibson family, said they’re hoping for a change in policy and procedure to prevent such an egregious mix-up in the future.
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