Woman Declared Dead, Placed in Morgue Freezer, Wakes Up but Freezes to Death

(Photo: Screengrab/CBS2)Maria de Jesus Arroyo and family.

The family of a woman who was wrongly declared dead and awoke inside the hospital morgue's freezer, then froze to death, has been given permission to sue the hospital for wrongful death.

According to the family, Maria de Jesus Arroyo, 80, was pronounced dead by physicians at the White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights, Calif. two years ago. She was taken to a mortician to be prepared for burial, and the mortician was stunned when he saw the condition of her body: it was facedown, with a broken nose and bruises to her face so severe that makeup could not cover them.

Once the family was notified, they contacted a pathologist to examine the body and determine what had happened. He testified that the injuries likely occurred while she was still alive – that she had possibly been declared dead prematurely and awoke inside the freezer.

She "damaged her face and turned herself face down as she struggled unsuccessfully to escape her frozen tomb," the pathologist said, according to court records. The Arroyo family dropped their initial lawsuit for "mishandling" the body and then refiled another suit, alleging that the hospital had wrongly declared the elderly woman dead prematurely, essentially causing her death.

"Plaintiffs had absolutely no reason to suspect that the decedent was alive rather than dead when placed in the Hospital morgue and when the disfiguring injuries occurred," the appellate justices wrote in their ruling which gave the family permission to continue with the lawsuit.

The 80-year-old woman left behind eight children a husband of 63 years. The family has not spoken publicly about their lawsuit but are leaving everything to their lawyers. The hospital has also declined to comment, as it is an ongoing case in the court system.

"This is one of the most egregious cases you'll ever see," family attorney Scott Schutzman told CBS Los Angeles. "This case keeps me awake at night."