PHILADELPHIA – The family of a Marine whose body came back from Greece without his heart can pursue negligence claims against the United States, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled. However, the judge found that Greek officials and the Athens hospital where the autopsy was performed are immune from the Pennsylvania family's lawsuit.
The dispute involves the August 2012 suicide of Marine Sgt. Brian LaLoup, who shot himself after a party at the U.S. embassy in Athens, where he was stationed. His heart vanished after an autopsy at an Athens hospital. His parents learned that from U.S. military officials only after his funeral — and they still don't know where it is.
"Many people thought we wouldn't be able to get this far," family lawyer Aaron J. Freiwald said Tuesday of the partial court victory. "This family now stands on an even playing field with the U.S. government. ... This is extremely important and gratifying."
His clients, Craig and Beverly LaLoup of Coatesville, near Philadelphia, can now investigate the handling of their son's body through legal discovery.
"This is his heart. This is his soul. This is what made Brian who he is," Beverly LaLoup told The Associated Press last year.
The parents also hope to learn more about their son's death. They believe their son told a colleague that he was suicidal over a breakup that night, but he was nonetheless allowed to keep drinking and gain access to a weapons closet. They are pursuing emotional distress claims because the U.S. military is generally immune from wrongful-death lawsuits, their lawyer said.
The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported Tuesday on the ruling last week from U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell.
Dalzell pondered whether U.S. military officials owe a duty of care to the parents of an adult service member. He concluded that they may.
"The relationship involves life and death, and (prior case law) recognized that those caring for the bodies ... have been found to have a duty to family members," he said.
U.S. military officials discovered the heart was missing when they performed a second autopsy on Aug. 22, after the body arrived in Dover, Del. The family learned that on Sept. 17, two weeks after the funeral.
A Greek embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C., has said the hospital kept the heart for toxicology tests, but he declined to say what happened to it later.
The LaLoups have not rule out filing suit in Greece against other defendants, Freiwald said.
The U.S. attorney's office in Philadelphia represents the U.S. military defendants in the federal lawsuit. The office declined to comment Tuesday because the lawsuit remains active, spokeswoman Patty Hartman said.