Mom to seek at least $25K from county 

Selina Picon, the mother whose son was unknowingly buried without his heart when the coroner retained the organ, has filed a claim against the county and coroner’s office, alleging severe emotional distress and loss of income.

Picon made headlines in February when she went before the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors stating that her son, Nicolas, was buried without his heart after the county coroner failed to inform her it was removed. Nicolas, 23, died suddenly at home on Oct. 25, 2006, of a congenital heart defect.

Picon didn’t learn that her son’s heart was retained until Nov. 13, more than two weeks after his burial.

The legal claim is the initial step to filing a civil lawsuit. It seeks unspecified damages of at least $25,000. When filing a claim, an attorney must designate whether a claim is for more or less than $25,000, but can determine an exact amount at a later date. The county has 45 days to accept or deny the claim, before a suit can be filed.

"The claim alleges that the coroner’s retention of the heart was unauthorized by law and caused severe emotional distress [to Picon] because of the knowledge that she buried her son without his body intact," said Ayanna Jenkins-Toney, Picon’s attorney, on Thursday.

The claim is based in part on the fact that California law allows only for the retention of tissues, whereas the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office retained an entire organ, Jenkins-Toney said.

Nicolas’ heart was retained in order to send it to a forensic cardiologist, or heart specialist, to further verify the cause of death, according to county Coroner Robert Foucrault. But when Picon complained, the heart was returned to her, Foucrault said.

While expressing regret about the death of Nicolas, Foucrault referred questions on the case to the county Counsel’s Office.

"We certainly understand her strong feelings, but in terms of a legal claim we don’t feel that the coroner broke any laws," said Assistant County Counsel Michael Murphy on Thursday.

Picon has been the impetus behind a new bill sponsored by Assemblyman Gene Mullion, D-South San Francisco, working its way through the Legislature. The bill would require coroners and medical examiners to notify the next of kin when tissues or organs are retained from a deceased family member.

Unsatisfied with simple notification, however, Picon took her cause to Sacramento earlier this week calling for coroners to receive permission from family members ahead of time.

Although allowed under state law for purposes of determining the cause of death, county officials say, supervisors panned the coroner’s office for failing to notify Picon and others whose family members have had organs and tissue samples retained in a timely manner.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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