My Turn: An unlikely case that turned into a 'deadly' switch

Laughs have been in short supply of late, due in large part to a nasty contagion that continues to spread faster than a California wildfire.

Those tragedies then are compounded by a 24-hour news cycle that seems bent on reporting and dissecting every offhanded tweet from a certain high-profile public official.

The steady diet of such non-newsworthy babble better belongs in the gossip section of some tawdry publication that can count its readers on one hand.

Such lament led me to recall a recent chat with Lyle Russell, a longtime attorney who has a keen wit and a reservoir of real-life legal stories that showcase the lighter side of the law.

Russell’s good nature could well be judged in a case he once handled for the family of a deceased Wayne County man. In local legal lore, it was labeled “The Wrong Body Case,” or better yet, “The Case of the Confused Caskets,” which sounds strikingly similar to some long-lost “Perry Mason” episode.

“Too bad about the death of Elmore Leonard,” Russell says upon reflection. “That case (in Wayne County) could have been an excellent set-up for one of his novels.”

To set the stage for this drama, please return to January 2, 1999, when a powerful winter storm blanketed Southeastern Michigan, forcing the shutdown of Metro Airport and the stranding of hundreds of passengers stuck on airplanes for more than 8 hours.

One such passenger was a burly 6-foot, 3-inch, 240-pound gentleman, reportedly clad in Bermuda shorts, who was returning with his girlfriend from a trip to the sunny Caribbean. When he finally was able to deplane, the man steadfastly marched to his car parked at an outlying airport lot. It, of course, was buried in hip-deep snow. Unfazed, the man attempted to clear a pathway around his car, but after a few moments with a makeshift shovel, he thought otherwise, settling into the warmth of the front seat, hoping that help would be on the way.

In his hurry to escape the winter blast, the man failed to clear away the snow from his exhaust pipe, which fully clogged pumped deadly carbon monoxide back into his tightly secured automobile. Within minutes, the man was overcome with the poisonous gas, bringing his vacation to a tragic end.

A few miles away, at another Wayne County site, a 54-year-old man, standing all of 5 feet, 6 inches tall, was out shoveling snow, doing his best to clear his sidewalk and driveway of the white stuff that was piling up at an alarming rate. Within minutes, he, too, would be dead, in his case after suffering a heart attack.

Two tragic deaths, miles apart, with no apparent connection except for winter’s common denominator – snow. One of the deceased was an imposing 6-3, while the other was just 5-6 in height. No one would ever mistake one for the other, according to Russell.

Both bodies were sent to the Wayne County morgue, where somehow, someway, a crisscross occurred. Small became big and big became small. One man, rightfully destined for a funeral home in Taylor, was sent to Ohio instead. The other, designated for a proper funeral service in the Buckeye State, was shipped to Taylor.

In other words, let the legal proceedings begin.

Russell was retained to represent the widow of the Taylor man.

“It probably should have been a tipoff to the funeral home that something was amiss when one was attempting to put 5-foot, 6-inch size clothes on a 6-foot, 3-inch body, and vice versa,” Russell relates. “One was ripping the seams of clothes to accommodate a bigger than expected body, while the other was doing the reverse alterations. You can only imagine how that must have been. Hello!”

But the family fireworks were yet to come. Each family was ushered into the respective funeral homes for final viewings of the deceased. The farewells, shall we say, did not go well.

“It would be safe to say that all hell broke loose at that point,” Russell reports, noting that the daughter of the Detroit area man was particularly upset with officials from the funeral home, eventually climbing into the casket to prove the case of mistaken identity.

The funeral home, of course, was dead in the water when legal swords were crossed, agreeing to settlement terms during a case evaluation process, according to Russell. The terms of that settlement, the parties agreed, would be kept confidential.

The Wayne County morgue, on the other hand, escaped the long arm of the civil law on governmental immunity grounds, Russell says.

“They were helpful in the case against the funeral home, however,” he says. “They somewhat admitted, when pressed, that on that day (shortly after the New Year’s celebrations) they were hung over and very much understaffed.”

Yes, indeed, too bad about Elmore Leonard. He would have enjoyed mining for literary gold in the real-life world of mortuary science.


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