A South Texas law firm on Tuesday notified Nueces County of a coming lawsuit, accusing the county’s medical examiner’s office of mishandling the autopsy of a man found dead nearly two years ago.
The four-page notice of claim signals a civil lawsuit seeking damages could be filed against the county in the coming weeks. Similar notices typically request the defendant to preserve records.
The law firm, Gowan and Elizondo, filed the claim on behalf of Tamara Gonzales. Her son, Joseph “Joey” Gonzales, 38, went missing on June 11, 2020. Authorities located his body five days later in a Southside storm drain near the 5900 block of La Costa Drive.
He was pronounced dead and later autopsied at the Nueces County Medical Examiner’s Office. The notice accuses the office and its employees of mishandling the body at multiple points during that process.
A June Caller-Times article states his cause of death was not immediately known. The medical examiner’s finding — which is being questioned in the notice of claim — was not clear Tuesday.
The notice is addressed to Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales. In a text message to the Caller-Times, Canales said she had “no personal knowledge of any of the events alleged in the notice letter to Nueces County.”
“I have sent the notice letter to the Nueces County Attorney’s Office as is our protocol,” Canales said. “The Commissioners Court will decide how to move forward.”
In an emailed statement to the Caller-Times, one of Tamara Gonzales’ attorneys, Gowan Gregory, said, “We would like to find peace for the families we represent in this sad situation.”
According to the notice, Gonzales, 57, is owed compensation because the medical examiner’s office was negligent in the handling of her son’s remains and a medical examiner falsified the cause of death in the final autopsy report. That medical examiner is not named in the document.
The notice states that an employee of the office who handled the body was not licensed by the state of Texas. That person is not named in the document.
There was “negligent and unnecessary delay” in the finalization and communication of the report of the autopsy to Gonzales, according to the notice. The notice also accuses the county of not performing “any background investigation” of personnel hired to work in the office.
These claims show that Tamara Gonzales was subjected to “intentional infliction of mental anguish and suffering,” according to the notice.
“Imagine the anguish you as a parent would have experienced over the protracted period of months Ms. (Tamara) Gonzales endured at the negligent acts and omissions of the Medical Examiner Office and those responsible for hiring those employees,” the notice reads. “No parent should be subjected to what she experienced.”
The notice states a lawsuit by Gonzales could make way for others.
“It is also likely what (Gonzales) endured is not an isolated occurrence,” the notice reads. “As her experience is revealed(,) it is likely others will come forward with similar complaints and claims.”
The notice comes as the Nueces County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas Rangers, the investigative arm of the Texas Department of Public Safety, have been investigating the medical examiner’s office and its two former medical examiners.
To date, the investigation has resulted in the arrest of three employees of the medical examiner’s office: Dr. Adel Shaker, the former chief medical examiner; Dr. Sandra Lyden, Shaker’s deputy chief medical examiner; and an office administrator.
A majority of the charges they face relate to whether Lyden was licensed by the Texas Medical Board to practice and the employees’ alleged attempt to hide that information from investigators. However, the lawsuit pertains to an autopsy performed before Lyden was hired on Dec. 6, 2021.
Chase Rogers covers local government and industry in South Texas. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @chasedrogers. You can support local journalism with a subscription to the Caller-Times.