The plaintiff’s attorney began the Original Petition for his client with this succinct statement: “This is a case of great sadness, high emotion and the need for precise and immediate action by the Court.”
On July 4, 2008, a 13 year-old girl drowned while swimming at a local lake. At the time of her death, the young girl was visiting her father in the Fort Worth area. A citizen of England, the girl was in the U.S. illegally at the time of her death because both her passport and her 90-day visitor’s visa had expired during her visit, which had extended for more than a year past the legally permissible period of time.
Pursuant to the terms of her divorce decree, the mother, a citizen of Ghana and resident of Great Britain, had sole custody and legal authority over her daughter. Though the daughter had not returned to her custody as planned, the mother had not initiated legal proceedings for her return to Great Britain because she had been advised by the International Child Abduction & Contact Unit in England that the filing proceedings might result in the father fleeing with the girl.
The girl’s father was a citizen of Great Britain, but a resident of the U.S. All other close relatives of the young girl lived in Great Britain, including a brother and both sets of her grandparents.
Upon her death, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner took possession of her body and a question immediately arose as to whom the girl’s remains should be released. Due to the factual uniqueness and legal uncertainty surrounding the circumstances, the Medical Examiner took the position that he would not release the girl’s body to either parent without a court order directing him to do so.
The case was initially filed by the child’s mother as an Application for Temporary Restraining Order, a request for an order restraining the Medical Examiner from releasing the child’s remains to any person than the mother (or her designated agent) for transportation to England for final interment. Texas Health and Safety Code, Section 711.002(k) governed the proceeding, which provided:
Any dispute among any of the persons listed in Subsection (a) concerning their right to control the disposition, including cremation, of a decedent’s remains shall be resolved by a court of competent jurisdiction. A cemetery organization or funeral establishment shall not be liable for refusing to accept the decedent’s remains, or to inter or otherwise dispose of the decedent’s remains, until it receives a court order or other suitable confirmation that the dispute has been resolved or settled.
For two days, this case consumed the time and efforts of all parties involved, including the lawyers, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office civil division, Judge Bonnie Sudderth and staff of the 352nd District Court, working diligently to expedite a final resolution of the sad ordeal. The initial lawsuit was filed on July 9, 2008 at 1:28 pm. By the end of the next day, on July 10, 2008, all parties had been served and appeared in court, a hearing was conducted and Judge Sudderth had signed a Final Judgment directing that Medical Examiner deliver the bodily remains of the young girl to the mother’s representatives for the purpose of immediate transport back to Great Britain. In her final order, Judge Bonnie Sudderth wrote:
It is the intent of this Order and Judgment that (her) bodily remains… be transmitted for interment in the United Kingdom as soon as possible and with no unnecessary delay.
The case was almost as ephemeral as the life of the young girl herself – lasting little over 24 hours from beginning to end.