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Twenty-two families to sue Nueces County over alleged negligence at the medical examiner's office

Damages include negligent handling of remains, non-licensing of personnel who handled the body, falsification of death certificates and failure to conduct background checks.
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Posted at 4:53 PM, Jul 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-14 15:53:12-04

UPDATE: As of Thursday July 14, 22 families are planning to sue Nueces County.
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Last week, 15 families notified Nueces County of their intent to sue over alleged negligence at the medical examiner’s office.

The claim comes from the fallout at the office that ultimately led to the arrest of former chief medical examiner Adel Shaker on more than a dozen violations of the Texas Occupations Code.

In a letter sent to county Judge Barbara Canales by law firms Gowen Elizondo LLP and the Law Office of Ralph M. Rodriguez, attorneys stated that, as the employee of the medical examiner, the county is legally responsible and liable for damages from that office.

The letter further states all the damages sustained to the claimants were a direct and proximate result of the negligence of Nueces County.

Some of the damages listed include negligent handling of remains, non-licensing of personnel who handled the body, falsification of death certificates and failure to conduct background checks.

In January, the deputy chief medical examiner at the time, Sandra Lyden was fired for not having the proper license to perform medicine in the state of Texas.

Records showed she performed 30 autopsies in her time as deputy chief medical examiner.

She was later arrested twice on several counts of tampering with a government document, violating the medical practice act with financial harm and misrepresentation regarding entitlement to practice medicine.

An ME’s office administrator was also arrested and charged with making a false report to a peace officer, federal special investigator and law enforcement after employees of the office accused her of listening in on private conversations pertaining to a criminal investigation via the office's security cameras.

“We just want justice for these families and we just want to make sure that it doesn’t happen to anybody else," said, Dave Johnson, an investigator with Gowan Elizondo LLP. "We want thee to be guidelines to be put in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

In March KRIS 6 interviewed one of the claimants, Tammy Gonzales, about her questioning the results of her son Joey’s autopsy. His body was found off La Costa Drive face down in a water filled ditch June 16, 2020.

Gonzales said her son had gone several days without his epilepsy medication when he went missing and initial reports from police told her it didn’t look like foul play.

But an autopsy report she received six months later showed he died of a homicide. Gonzales said after questioning Shaker about her son’s cause of death, he changed it to undetermined.

Gonzales said she questioned Shaker’s quick decision to change his opinion.

In Friday’s letter, attorneys referenced Gonzales experience stating, “Imagine the anguish you as a parent would have experienced over the protracted period of months our clients endured at the negligent acts and omissions of the medical examiner office and those responsible for hiring those employees. No parent should be subjected to what she experienced. It is Also likely what she endured is not an isolated occurrence.”

The letter goes on to ask the leadership at the county commissioners court to address and fix the long-term problem within it’s authority and control.

Attorneys said they are aware the investigation is ongoing and each one of the claimants is interested in sitting down with county leaders to discuss changes to the office so that the issues they faced won’t be by another family.

KRIS 6 contacted the county to get a response and were told by county attorney Jenny Dorsey “The county can’t comment on any potential pending litigation.”