Orange County

Family Sues for $5M After Mix-Up Leads to Wrong Burial

The lawsuit said the OC coroner's office "did not want to spend its time properly identifying the body of a deceased homeless person"

The family of a man mistakenly identified by Orange County Coroner's officials have sued the county and Chapman Funeral Homes in Orange County Superior Court alleging negligence and infliction of emotional distress among other claims.

The $5 million lawsuit was filed by Frankie M. Kerrigan's sister, Carole Meikle, and their father, Francis J. Kerrigan.

The plaintiffs claim the county coroner's office "caused the Kerrigan family unimaginable pain and suffering because it did not want to spend its time properly identifying the body of a deceased homeless person," according to the lawsuit.

The body found near a Verizon store in Fountain Valley was actually that of 54-year-old John Dean Dickens.

Authorities told Kerrigan's relatives on May 6, 2017, that Kerrigan, who was 57 at the time, was found dead behind the phone store.

They were told fingerprints and an ID card verified the identity of the body, according to the lawsuit.

"The Kerrigan family mourned the death of Frankie, held a Catholic funeral and, to their knowledge, buried their son and brother," the lawsuit reads. "A few weeks later, Frankie showed up at one of the pallbearers house alive.

"The Orange County Coroner's Office did not use proper identification procedures when it received the body because it did not think anyone would care about a deceased mentally ill homeless man. When the misidentification was realized, the county of Orange orchestrated a cover-up in an attempt to conceal the gross negligence that occurred at the Orange County Coroner's Office. Chapman Funeral Homes failed to disclose facts that would have revealed the cover-up to plaintiffs."

Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the coroner's office, declined to comment citing a policy on pending litigation. An attempt to reach Chapman Funeral Homes was not immediately successful.

Frank Kerrigan began suffering "the effects of various mental disorders, including schizophrenia, in his early 40s, according to the lawsuit.

"Due to his mental illness, Frankie preferred a transient lifestyle and chose to live intermittently homeless over the past 10 years," according to the lawsuit.

Dickens' body was buried in a graveside plot at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery near Frankie Kerrigan's mother, who died about 10 years ago, according to the lawsuit.

Kerrigan and Meikle sent the funeral home a photo of Frankie to use for a memorial's mass cards. A "very small viewing" was held on May 11.

During the viewing, a funeral director brought was purported to be Kerrigan's personal belongings to the father and sister's husband, Terry Meikle, the lawsuit alleges.

"None of the belongings looked familiar," according to the lawsuit.

"There was no identification in the wallet. Moreover, there was no black attache or watch in the belongings."

Frankie Kerrigan was known to frequently carry an attache case, the family said.

"Kerrigan wanted Frankie buried with a watch on his wrist and a pen in his pocket, two possessions Frankie always had on him," the lawsuit said. "Terry the funeral director received a watch and a pen Kerrigan brought and put it on "Frankie's" body."

When Kerrigan asked the funeral director to "further check with his staff and the coroner to help locate Frankie's black attache case, his watch and his pen, but plaintiffs are informed and believe that no follow up was conducted," the lawsuit alleges.

The father went through all of the clothes and belongings of Dickens on May 15, 2017, but did not recognize any of it, according to the lawsuit, so he asked coroner's officials to keep looking for the black attache case, wrist watch and pen.

A family friend called Kerrigan on May 23 and said, "Are you sitting down? Frankie is alive." Frankie Kerrigan had showed up at pallbearer Bill Shinker's home, according to the lawsuit.

The family notified coroner's officials on May 30 that Frankie Kerrigan was alive.

Coroner's officials on June 1 notified the family that the body was identified as that of Dickens.

Dickens' body was removed from the cemetery on Aug. 23.

Fountain Valley firefighters listed the body found at the phone store as about 65 years old weighing 250 pounds, according to the lawsuit. A witness at the store said the dead man was heavy set with long, dark hair.

Frankie Kerrigan, however, weighed about 170 pounds and had short, light hair. 

The lawsuit alleges that fingerprints and an ID card could not have been used to identify the body. The lawsuit further alleges that Dickens was not the one found at the store, but a third man's body.

The lawsuit alleges that a body that looked "close enough" to Frankie Kerrigan's was released to the funeral home. Coroner's officials did so "with the belief that no one would care because the deceased were mentally ill and/or homeless," the lawsuit alleges.

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