Ohio hospital settles lawsuit over fetuses in jars

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By BARBARA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio hospital reached a proposed lawsuit settlement of about $1 million with women who said they were emotionally distressed to learn a former employee had stuffed their miscarried or stillborn fetuses into jars for years — citing her religious beliefs — and kept them in hospital storage, instead of medically disposing of them.

Firelands Community Hospital, now known as Firelands Regional Medical Center, reached the agreement after years of litigation with 180 women who filed a class-action lawsuit complaining about how the Sandusky hospital disposed of the fetuses.

"We're very happy that we were able to bring this relief to the families," said John Murray, an attorney representing the women. "It's been a long haul."

Court records show that Patricia Lukas, a histologist technician working in the hospital's morgue, placed 88 fetuses into the same three containers for different time periods between 1988 and 1996. Hospital policy at the time called for the tissue of miscarried or stillborn fetuses to be incinerated or placed in a tissue grinder.

A 2006 judge's ruling dismissing claims against the hospital said Lukas' religious beliefs held "that fetal tissue should not be placed in the grinder."

Lukas was fired in 1996 when the hospital discovered the practice. The hospital then disposed of the fetuses according to its policy.

Lukas was dismissed from the lawsuit several months ago and had no comment, her attorney, Jeanne Mullin, said by email Thursday.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in 1997, shortly after the women and their families learned about the technician's practices from media reports. The lawsuit originally contended the hospital and the technician violated Ohio statutes and common law regarding the handling of bodies and fetuses. Ultimately, it focused on the hospital's alleged infliction of emotional stress on the women.

"After a long mediation process, both sides reached this amicable settlement," said Firelands spokeswoman Leslie Mesenburg. "We are pleased that both sides can put this this case behind them and move forward."

No criminal charges were filed, Mesenburg said.

The hospital updated its policies for disposing of fetal tissue after Lukas' actions were uncovered, and again in 2008 after the state enacted a law providing for death certificates and burial permits for fetuses that die before 20 weeks.

Murray said the terms of the settlement, which was reached May 14 and still needs a judge's approval to become final, includes the hospital issuing a public apology. They also will provide free counseling to any woman now treated at the hospital who has a miscarriage or stillborn.

"They really need this," he said of his clients. "They really needed this closure."

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