COLUMBUS - During an autopsy to determine why Christopher Albrecht plunged his vehicle into a pond and drowned, the Hamilton County coroner removed Mr. Albrecht's brain and never put it back.
Though the practice is standard for coroners, Mr. Albrecht's parents didn't know for years that they had buried their son without his brain.
When they found out, they filed a lawsuit that raises sweeping ethical, moral, and religious questions about the treatment of one's body after death.
The case, to be argued Wednesday before the Ohio Supreme Court, has drawn international attention for its ramifications to coroners, crime investigators, EMTs, funeral directors, and followers of religions that espouse the importance of burying the whole body.
The Albrechts argue that they had a right under the Ohio Constitution to their son's brain and a right under the U.S. Constitution to be given an opportunity to reclaim the brain before it was destroyed.
The lawsuit is a class action against coroners and commissioners in 87 of Ohio's 88 counties covering cases dating to 1991.
Under Ohio law, brains, hearts, and other body parts and fluids removed during an autopsy are classified as medical waste, which generally means they are incinerated.
"What this case really comes down to is, for the convenience of the government, are we Ohioans, we humans, supposed to give up our most basic rights to the human remains of our loved ones?" said John Metz, an attorney in the Albrechts' suit.
Defenders of the coroners, including the Ohio State Coroners Association, Ohio State Medical Association, and the National Association of Medical Examiners, contend that establishing property rights for families to the organs, tissue, blood, and other fluids extracted during an autopsy could jeopardize timely autopsies and risk the resulting criminal evidence.
"The longer you wait to perform an autopsy, the more evidence and information you lose," said Elizabeth Mason, an assistant Clermont County prosecutor leading the county coroners' defense.
Brains are particularly difficult to reunite with a body in time for burial, because it takes 3 to 14 days to prepare them for examination.
Ms. Mason anticipates litigation against counties if the Albrechts prevail, as relatives - often upset by an autopsy in the first place - negotiate what to do about body parts that have been removed, perhaps disagree, and communicate conflicting directions to coroners.
Pathologists and others fighting the Albrechts argue that what happens in an autopsy is common knowledge because of television if nothing else, and families must know that bodies that have undergone an autopsy are not returned entirely intact.
In its brief, the Medical Examiners Association said biologic material from a dead body can't help but be lost.
Bodies lose fluids at accident scenes and parts of some bodies are never found, the group said.
It argued that material taken by coroners is being singled out unfairly in this case.