Bellingham settles claims of fire department corpse abuse for $550K

The city of Bellingham has settled the last in a string of claims and lawsuits stemming from a 2018 incident in which city medics used the body of a man who died in an ambulance for medical training in a fire station bay.

Four claims against the city, a state Supreme Court ruling and a fire department shakeup later, Bellingham officials have paid $550,000 to members of the man’s family, including a $175,000 settlement reached with his brother Wednesday.

The settlement came after Robert Fox, the man’s brother, testified during the trial of his federal lawsuit about the “mental and emotional pain” he suffered over the treatment of his brother’s remains. That included laying the man’s body in an empty equipment bay hours after his death and letting employees, including the office secretary, take turns trying to insert an endotracheal breathing tube down the cadaver’s throat.

The city in 2019 paid $175,000 to Jai Ginn, the wife of Bradley Ginn Sr., and $75,000 each to his two sons. Jai Ginn, who initially had demanded $15 million, also received a $50,000 settlement from Snohomish County, said Bellingham City Attorney Michael Edward Good.

The city didn’t initially settle Fox’s claim, however, arguing that allegations of “tortious interference with a corpse” can only be brought by the custodian of the body – in this case, Jai Ginn. Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said in March 2020 that Washington law wasn’t clear on the matter and put the case on hold while he sent the question to the state Supreme Court for clarification and direction.

In a groundbreaking 6-3 decision rendered the following year, the high court found Fox had standing to sue.

“Over 100 years ago, this court recognized the purpose behind this action was to compensate those who suffer from the emotional distress arising from the mistreatment of their loved ones’ remains,” wrote Justice Susan Owens for the majority.

Bellingham officials admitted the city was liable for a claim of “tortious interference with a dead body,” but contested Fox’s claim to significant damages.

The city said even close family members, including Jai Ginn and Fox’s own son, had said in depositions and testimony that “Fox was not close with his brother and any relationship they shared was acrimonious, at best,” according to court documents.

But the city ultimately settled the lawsuit after hearing Fox’s testimony during the first day of his trial, indicating they found his distress credible.

Fox, meanwhile, had been facing pressure to settle after the judge said he would not stop the city from attempting to introduce evidence that Fox had cut a deal with his son to pay off the son’s student loans if he didn’t provide negative testimony about Fox’s relationship with Ginn.

Fox’s attorneys called that testimony “false, irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial.”

But the city said in court pleadings that “Fox was estranged from his brother and did not suffer emotional damages from learning of the incident on July 31, 2018.”

That was the day Ginn, who lived in a nursing home, fell ill and began struggling for breath – prompting a call to Bellingham paramedics.

According to the lawsuit and a 24-page investigative report commissioned by Bellingham officials and authored by Seattle attorney Susan Hale, Ginn stopped breathing and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Ginn had a “do not resuscitate” order, and the hospital declined to take his body, according to the lawsuit and subsequent investigation. Paramedics then contacted the medical examiner, who told them to take the body to the fire station and call a funeral home, the report says.

Initially, the plan was to place the body in an auxiliary ambulance at the fire station, but that unit was out and the equipment bay was empty. According to the investigation, the body was placed on the concrete floor of the empty equipment bay in a partially unzipped body bag, exposing his face and torso to passersby.

During the next 45 minutes, according to Fox’s lawsuit and Hale’s report, a total of 11 Bellingham Fire Department employees, including an accountant and a secretary, took turns attempting to insert an endotracheal breathing tube down Ginn’s throat as his body lay in the apparatus bay.

Intubation involves inserting a tube into an individual’s mouth and partially down their throat to create a clear breathing passage.

In all, the procedure was performed 15 times. “These intubations served no medical purpose and were in direct contradiction to Mr. Ginn Sr.’s order that no invasive procedures, like intubation, be performed,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit points out that no family member was contacted for consent to intubate Ginn’s corpse. According to news reports at the time, the family was not notified until two months later, when the incident was reported in the news.

The investigation determined that the Bellingham Fire Department had used corpses, usually the bodies of crash victims or people who had recently died, for intubation training. Employees referred to the practice as a “tube check,” and the practice was used as a “mechanism for the paramedic to practice their intubation skills” and maintain certification. Usually, such incidents would involve one or two practice “tube checks” on dead patients’ bodies.

While the investigation found that for the most part, the “tone and atmosphere of the group were professional” during the intubation practice on Ginn’s body, the group included an account assistant and an office assistant who had no reason to be involved. Those two individuals, the investigation found, exchanged a “high-five” after completing their turns intubating body.

One of them then went into the kitchen and got a cupcake, but only after washing her hands, according to the document.