Lawsuits: American Airlines Loses Wife's Corpse For 4 Days

It’s one thing if American Airlines loses your baggage, but what about your wife’s body? What do you do then? One Brooklyn man was faced with this grim dilemma when he arranged to have his wife’s body flown to their home in Ecuador after she passed away from pelvic cancer. American Airlines lost the body, and it went unrefrigerated for 4 days, according to the New York Post.

According to the lawsuit, filed last week, the body of 57-year-old Teresa Olaya was so badly decomposed when it finally arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, that her grieving husband, Miguel, had to forgo a traditional open-casket funeral.

“During those days, a thousand things went through my mind,” Olaya, 60, told The Post. “Where is she? Is she dumped somewhere like an animal? And I had no answers for my daughter. She would ask me, ‘Where is my mami?’ “

It gets even more grim. After being given the runaround by AA for several days, the casket finally arrived at it’s destination. Miguel was relieved… until he opened the casket…

“When I opened the casket, it was a terrible shock,” said Olaya. “I still can’t get it out of my mind”

“They treated the body like a piece of baggage,” said lawyer Christopher Robles, who said his client was seeking an unspecified seven-figure sum. “They didn’t keep it refrigerated.”

AA said it couldn’t comment because of the pending lawsuit.

AIRLINE ‘LOSES’ CORPSE [NYP] (Thanks, Trish!)
(Photo: Charliux )

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  1. B1663R says:

    Epic Fail.

  2. caveman1428 says:

    Unreal. Words cant even express, and to just think what would go through your mind after opening that casket to find your dead decomposing wife. Just absolutely horrible. Its amazing the disgust i have for AA and its workers right now.

  3. racerchk says:

    wow. sue thier asses off man.

  4. albokay says:

    At least they dont discriminate. Dead or alive you are screwed flying with them.

  5. BoomerFive says:

    Simply amazing. Epic fail doesn’t come close to the screw up that this is.

  6. B says:

    Maybe they were just being green?

  7. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    Much will depend on the arrangements that the funeral home made. Much paper work is required to ship a dead body internationally. Were the papers in order? Did they pay for refrigeration? Does AA provide refrigeration? How do you refrigerate a casket in a baggage hold?

    • raptorrapture says:

      @IfThenElvis: Even then, they LOST her for 4 days without any idea of where she was. For four days she was stuck in some hot cabin somewhere – I don’t think it would have made too much of a difference if it was just the duration of the flight (I’m not expert on decomposition, so someone help me out here), but four days?

    • Elvisisdead says:

      @IfThenElvis: I’ll take “not enough information to select a correct answer”. Customs problems? What’s the average time to collect a body from air cargo? How long does a body have to be held on arrival? Can they cool it while it waits?

      A better question would be “what could have been done differently, and what would have been the best possible outcome?” I mean obviously, this wasn’t it, but what would the best case scenario have been?

      • The Porkchop Express says:

        @Elvisisdead: @IfThenElvis:

        Thank you, we do need to know what role the first funeral home has in the mistake and if any of this was customs/another party’s fault as well.

        He should have gotten better service from the airline, but it may not be all on them.

    • @IfThenElvis:

      Well I don’t think refrigeration in-flight would be much of an issue given the temperatures at those altitudes. More than likely it was the 4 days it spent “lost” at some terminal where people didn’t know “what’s in that big box?”.

      This is as was said before more than an Epic Fail

      • There's room to move as a fry cook says:

        @TakingItSeriously:
        Cargo holds are pressurized and heated. As a baggage handler I said many reassuring words to caged kitties and doggies, and left the light on, before shutting the cargo door.

        But as you said, it likely sat on the ground with those around not knowing “what’s in that big box?” (I doubt it was shipped in an obvious casket.)

        I wonder what arrangements the funeral home made as it is possible to expedite freight.

        I am surprised that the body was not embalmed as it is very common in Latin America and the husband expected a traditional open casket funeral.

        • iotashan says:

          @IfThenElvis: Of course, my comment appears just below the one where you mention you’re a baggage handler & that the entire hold is temperature controlled. Airline websites, when describing shipping live animals, imply that only a section is temperature controlled. I guess the do that to help justify the costs :)

        • strathmeyer says:

          @IfThenElvis: “I am surprised that the body was not embalmed as it is very common in Latin America and the husband expected a traditional open casket funeral.”

          Maybe Ecuadorian embalmings are cheaper?

    • iotashan says:

      @IfThenElvis: I’m not sure that you have to refrigerate it… AFAIK, only parts of the baggage hold are temperature controlled (i.e. where they put live animals), and the rest just gets cold from altitude.

    • Aisley says:

      @IfThenElvis:
      Come on IF, please, do not try to soften this one! AA is charging for EVERYTHING they can. You think that they would have not offered refrigeration just to charge for it?

      How the #%&&* you loose a dead body? I don’t care how bad the confussion with the city codes was, if ypu have the opportunity to check an airline computer you’ll get to see that they do not list the cargo by city code. They do it by the person/company name. So in this case you would would have found the body listed under the husband’s name. Do you really need FOUR days to find out what you did wrong? No way. Some time ago I flew from Argentina to Ft. Lauderdale in a now defunct airline. When I got out of the airplane, there was an airline agent to let me know that my suitcases were in route to Nunberg, Germany! They promised to do their best to get my suitcases back before I had to leave Ft. Lauderdale three days later, and they did. Boy, I miss those times!!!

  8. TrustUs says:

    It’s part of AA’s pre-bankrupcy strategy, following the golden parachute planning.

  9. Maybe TSA baggage handlers were going through her pockets.

    Wouldn’t put it past them.

  10. SkokieGuy says:

    He was given the run around for several days.

    Exactly what does American Airlines think is a significant enough consumer complaint that actually deserves immediate and stellar service?

    • Scoobatz says:

      @SkokieGuy: I am truly at a loss for words. This was my initial reaction, as well.

      I still can’t over the fact that days had passed. This story would have been just as horrific had AA lost track of the body for 12 hours.

    • EricLecarde says:

      @SkokieGuy: My child is missing on your plane that I got off of 3 years ago.

      AA lost my business a long time ago. I fly Southwest now. Much better service and at least admit screwups.

  11. EyeHeartPie says:

    He obviously didn’t pay the fee for decomposition protection. /sarcasm

    Seriously though, there is no way that AA should have been able to lose a casket for 4 days. What did the baggage handlers think was inside? “Oh, it’s ok to leave that casket unrefrigerated, because it’s probably full of comic books.”

  12. nicemarmot617 says:

    Wasn’t this the beginning of a bad movie with Billy Crystal?

  13. ninabi says:

    When my grandmother passed away, the funeral director took the body to the airport to be flown back to her home town. She missed her flight.

    Somebody stayed with the casket until the next flight.
    Granted, she was flying direct on her final flight, but what on earth happened? How could a casket be lost? It’s not as if there are hundreds of oblong boxes sitting in unclaimed baggage!

    My sympathies to the family. Good on them for filing a lawsuit.

  14. Ghede says:

    I hope he takes them to the cleaners, no settlement, no mercy.

  15. picardia says:

    That’s really egregious. Like Ninabi said, you’d think it would be pretty obvious that a COFFIN is not an ordinary piece of luggage, not to mention that an extraordinary level of care would seem to be called for in all such situations.

  16. Wormfather is Wormfather says:

    ::static:: Failflight 245, you’re cleared for landing on failway 2 ::static::

    Sue them, sue them hard.

  17. Optimistic Prime says:

    As noted, AA probably doesn’t offer refrigeration. My biggest questions are, why did he have her shipped to his house to open it up? Usually the funeral director has it sent to the funeral home. I’m not familiar with Ecuadorian customs, but I imagine they have undertakers there. Why wasn’t the body embalmed before flight? It really should’ve been.

    When we had to fly my brother up from FL to OH, he was embalmed and sent to the funeral home. I also can’t imagine actual caskets are used for transporting bodies. I’ve yet to see one come out of the belly. Even if it’s just a casket being shipped, it’ll be crated up. I imagine there are plenty of sickos and other degenerates they have to put bodies in wooden crates.

    • RedwoodFlyer says:

      “Now boarding American Airlines flight 666, with non-stop service to the bottom”

      @Optimistic Prime: @Git Em SteveDave is starlost:

      They have to use Air Trays, which are hermetically sealed. AA uses the term “Jim Wilson” to refer to deceased-related things, and containers with bodies (which are in rectangular shape that can’t really be mistaken for anything else) usually have JIM WILSON on them in big letters. It would suck to be named Jim Wilson and have a ticket on AA…I could only imagine the look on a flight attendant’s face when she goes over the manifest!

      [www.aacargo.com]

      @IfThenElvis:

      We call these the “KrisMorgue.” The especially need it on their ultra-long-haul ETOPS flights since they’re so far from suitable diversion points…and even if they could divert, it would be an operational and logistical nightmare…

  18. vladthepaler says:

    If AA knew the contents of the box, they should have taken much better care of it. Hope this guy wins a few million… not that it’ll make up for anything, but AA really needs to be taught a lesson…

  19. ViperBorg says:

    Sue them. Make them go out of business. How perfect it would be for this to make that airline go under. No more government bailouts. Make the airlines realize they can’t treat customers this way. Deceased, or alive.

  20. pmathews says:

    Hey now, I’m sure AA is “taking this seriously”…

  21. am84 says:

    How awful. I feel so bad for him. Obviously no amount of money is worth this kind of treatment, but I still hope he takes them to the cleaners.

  22. BeThisWay says:

    They don’t always embalm bodies. Jews in particular do not embalm as a general practice, though we did have to embalm my stepmother because she passed away on a Friday and we couldn’t get her flown back to Florida until Monday because the doctor hadn’t signed her death certificate.

  23. Jabberkaty says:

    I think I would’ve let someone else open the casket. Who? I dunno – TSA? Just tell them that there’s metal inside. Or a tube of toothpaste. *shudder*

    I can’t imagine opening it myself. Not after they lost it. What a cluster.

  24. econobiker says:

    How does anyone actually expect to get their lost baggage back from AA when they can not even find a casket?

  25. Mike8813 says:

    Wow, that really got to me. I sometimes get reminded of the reality of death when watching movies, or reading stories such as these. I always shudder to think of losing my wife or son during these moments of thought.

    Reading what happened when he opened the casket, days later and after much decomposition, was almost too much. (I even turned my head away from the phone I was reading it on… That’s a first)

    Lawsuits and liabilities aside, I feel terrible for this poor man. What a truly heartbreaking story.

  26. Trai_Dep says:

    I’m wryly amused that even for this case of egregious wrong-doing, there are some that are defending American and/or blaming the victim. JEEzus.

    • Fly Girl says:

      @Trai_Dep: I don’t think anyone is blaming the victim or making excuses for AA.

      When people are asking why the OP opened the casket, and had it delivered to his house, I think that’s a pretty valid question– even if the body hadn’t been lost, she would have been deceased for a few days by the time they got her all the way to Ecuador. If she wasn’t in a fridge the entire time, she was going to be funky when she got there, with or without a delay.

      And when people are asking for more information about the funeral home and customs, that’s a valid question, too. There’s the possibility that her body made to to Ecuador right when she was supposed to and that when the Ecuadorian customs were inspecting the cargo, they detained and/or misplaced the body. That’s a pretty decent possibility, and if that’s the case, AA wouldn’t be liable. It’s also a possibility that the funeral home in NY messed up the paperwork and CAUSED a delay in customs or with the airline. Shipping body internationally requires a LOT of red tape and if it wasn’t done properly, there’s every possibility that a situation like this would occur. Again, if that’s what happened, AA wouldn’t be liable.

      There’s not a single person on this thread that thinks what happened to the OP is okay, or is blaming HIM for the situation. Rather, some of the people have said that before we hang AA out to dry, we should make sure that they’re the responsible party.

      • angryhippo says:

        @Fly Girl: “When people are asking why the OP opened the casket, and had it delivered to his house, I think that’s a pretty valid question–“

        After all of that maybe he wanted to verify that she was still there. Or it wasn’t someone else in there. The hardest thing to do is predict how someone grieving will react to such inane asshattery.

      • mythago says:

        @Fly Girl: If you read the actual linked article, the funeral home is ALSO a defendant in the lawsuit. So it’s clearly not just AA that’s being blamed.

  27. RBecho says:

    This is a terrible thing, I feel horrible for the family involved and I can only hope that whoever is responsible gets the full screwing over legally for this.

  28. Fly Girl says:

    Oh.My.God. That is TERRIBLE. How do you lose a COFFIN?! Having worked at an airport, for a major airline, I know that it’s nothing short of a miracle that an normal baggage makes it where it’s supposed to be be… But a coffin?! How does that get misplaced?

    It was probably packed in another box, sure, but it’d be pretty hard to lose a giant human-sized wooden crate. Assuming that this mishap didn’t have something to do with customs, or the funeral home filling out the papers incorrectly, or something like that (it would be nice to get a little more background on the story), what probably happened is that it was shipped via cargo and the asshats in cargo put it on the wrong plane and then couldn’t track it down. Sweet baby Jesus, that’s horrific. Absolutely horrific.

    One thing I don’t get… Why did he open the box?! After his wife had been “lost” for four days, and obviously wasn’t embalmed, why on God’s green earth would he open the box?! *gag* I can’t even think about it, it’s too gross. To have to see his wife that way… *shudder*

    The poor man. His poor family. If this really is AA’s fault, I hope they win their suit ’cause they deserve to OWN American Airlines. And if it wasn’t AA’s fault (customs, funeral home, whoever), I hope they find out who was responsible and take ‘em to the cleaners.

  29. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    Remind me never to fly Singapore Airlines. For some reason they are too well prepared for death-in-the-air.

    [www.timesonline.co.uk]

    The body of a woman in her seventies, who died after the plane left Delhi for Heathrow, was carried by cabin staff from economy to first class, where there was more space. Her body was propped up in a seat, using pillows.

    The woman died during a nine-hour flight on a Boeing 747. Trinder was catching up on sleep when he was woken by a commotion and opened his eyes to see staff manoeuvring the body into a seat.

    “I didn’t have a clue what was going on. The stewards just plonked the body down without saying a thing. I remember looking at this frail, sparrow-like woman and thinking she was very ill,” said Trinder.

    “She kept slipping under the seatbelt and moving about with the motion of the plane. When I asked what was going on I was shocked to hear she was dead.”

    Other carriers use different procedures. Singapore Airlines has introduced “corpse cupboards” on its Airbus 340-500 aircraft.

    • TechnoSmurf says:

      @IfThenElvis:

      Would you prefer to sit next to the corpse rather than having it moved away?

      Considering it is a corpse (and most likely beginning the process of decomp., which brings out all sorts of fun odors and health hazards), its best to isolate the corpse as quickly as possible from the other passengers through empty cabins/rows. If that isnt the case, then Singapore Airlines has a good approach to place the corpse in a cabin isolated until proper medical staff can take it away

  30. nsv says:

    This is obscene. My heart goes out to the family.

  31. There's room to move as a fry cook says:

    Someone screwed up but we don’t have enough info to know if it was AA. AA has regular flights from New York to Quito, Ecuador, using 757’s, with a plane change in Miami and door-to-door durations of 9-24 hours.

    From Quito to Guayaquil is ~200 miles as the crow flies (much more by road). Possibly the casket was delayed at Quito before being picked up by a local ground or air carrier.

    In the best of circumstances I can’t see better than 2-3 days from the funeral home door to funeral home door.

  32. pax says:

    Poor man. And poor daughter. I agree: Take AA for every penny.

  33. DrJimmy says:

    Dear God.

    I’m embarassed to live in the same state with AA. (FWIW, AA’s base is at DFW airport.)

    This family needs to sue for a nine-figure sum in Cash. No AA stock.

    And AA needs to pay the family’s taxes on its award. Bastards.

  34. mannyv says:

    Customer: where’s my wife’s body?

    AA: here are some free drink vouchers. Enjoy! Oh, sorry about your bag.

  35. knyghtryda says:

    There’s fail… then there’s professional fail. This my friends is top notch professional fail. Here’s a hint… yeah, AA, you may not care for any of your “regular” customers and their luggage, but when you have something this important (not to mention bulky, oddly shaped, and possibly strange smelling…) I think taking a little extra care would be the least you can do. Not doing so is gonna cost you 7 figures and the branding of “that airline that lost a dead body”.

  36. incognit000 says:

    When I flew with Southwest and my bag was lost, they acted like they’d just lost the Mona Lisa and they went to great lengths to find the bag and then drive it out to my hotel. that’s why I don’t mind flying with Southwest.

    A friend of mine is a police officer and when he flies he takes his service pistol with him in his checked bags. He does this partly because he’s an officer and likes to have his gun and partly because he assumes that an airline isn’t going to lose a piece of baggage that has a police officer’s service pistol in it. But AA lost it once, and only the fact that his police department threw a fit managed to get it back (they were OK with this, I don’t know how entirely kosher it is nationwide).

    I feel really sorry for this guy. No one should have to put up with this. But AA just doesn’t care about it’s customers in any way, shape or form.

  37. miburo says:

    even with something this amazingly bad.. By now.

    Is anyone really surprised?

    I can’t even begin to imagine what the guy and his family went through.

  38. HopeAnteater says:

    Modern embalming does not preserve a corpse for a lengthy period of
    time. It slows down but does not prevent decomposition.

    The corpse will still decompose four days without refrigeration, and
    depending on conditions, the decomposition may be significant and
    prevent an open casket ceremony.

  39. hhole says:

    This is why there will never be a movie sequel titled:

    “Weekend at Bernie’s–The AA Weekend”

    Seriously, my condolences to the family and my contempt to all of the assclowns involved in this SNAFU.

    Sue hard, sue fast and sue for a metric ton of gold.

  40. mariospants says:

    I can’t even imagine what it would be like to open the coffin of your wife even if she WAS refrigerated. I wouldn’t have the balls for it.

    What service does AA provide for the transportation of dead bodies? Is it an extra cost service or is it considered a “baggage” item? Do they handle it differently? If so, then they have a hell of a lot to answer for and there’s no acceptable excuse for what happened.

    If I ever find myself in a similar situation, I’ll be sure to book and extra seat, bring her on board in a wheelchair and pretend she took sedatives in order to “calm her for the flight”. Then at least I’ll know they won’t lose her.

  41. nybiker says:

    From the NY Daily News:
    “After the mistake was discovered, the airline even wanted to charge an extra $321 to ship Teresa’s body to the right place, said the director of DeRiso Funeral Home in Bay Ridge, which made the arrangements.

    “I said, ‘This is adding insult to injury,'” said Cathy DeRiso.

    She said she gave American the billing information she had prepared with the correct destination.

    It turns out, DeRiso said, the goof was by someone at the airline who typed in the wrong airport code – GUA for Guatemala instead of GYE for Guayaquil.

    Once the airline verified that it made the mistake, it waived the charge.

    American declined to comment.

    Olaya is also suing DeRiso, claiming that the body was badly embalmed and decomposed in the Guatemala City airport – canceling plans for a three-day wake. DeRiso denies that charge. “
    The is the url for the entire story:
    [www.nydailynews.com]

    • Fly Girl says:

      @nybiker: Oooooooh, that SUCKS. The GUA/GYE thing is understandable– it happens, people make mistakes– but it is NOT acceptable.

      I’ve been lucky enough to never make that mistake (a travel agent’s worst nightmare!), but I’ve been around to watch colleagues make a few doozies– like the honeymooning couple that thought they bought tickets to San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) and were sold tickets to San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU).

      They didn’t even realize the error until they were at their CONNECTION city and the flight attendants asked them what they were planning on doing on PUERTO RICO. They were like… “Say what?! We’re going to COSTA RICA.” And the flight attendant was like, “Noooooo, you’re going to PUERTO RICO.” And then they grabbed their carry-ons and ran off of the plane.

      Luckily, the couple was good-natured about the whole mix up and my agency was able to get them to Costa Rica only a few hours later than they expected to get there… But, lemmee tell you, heads ROLLED over that mistake.

      Had someone at my agency f***ed up delivery of a BODY?! OhmyGod, I don’t even know what would happen. AA deserves whatever they get, and I hope the OP gets them good.

  42. synergy says:

    I thought I’d throw out there that there are various degrees of embalming, from cosmetic to full embalming. There’s also a matter of how well the embalming is done. Someone besides/in addition to the airline might be to blame if the woman’s body indeed rotted in those days.

    All that aside, how does one ignore a body-sized box and not wonder why it’s there when it shouldn’t be??

  43. LostAngeles says:

    So, there was a human-sized box hanging around an airport somewhere for 4 days, no one knew what was in it, and no one checked? No one ran it through an X-ray scanner, called the bomb squad, tried to track down what it was?

    There needs to be some, uh, retraining…

  44. Japheaux says:

    I want to be on the jury.

  45. Kounji says:

    They really blew it. They honestly blew it.

  46. nerdychaz says:

    Can you imagine at baggage claim…

    “yeah, my wife is missing.”
    “Sir, this is baggage claim, we do not help with lost persons. See guest relations.”
    “No, you don’t understand…”
    “No sir, you don’t understand. This is baggage claim.”
    “She’s dead you dumb @#&*#”
    “Security! We got a possible 10-51.”

  47. MyPetFly says:

    Next time, ship the body in a crew jump seat with the other dead weight.

  48. dragonfire81 says:

    This guy better get a HUGE FUCKING SETTLEMENT/JUDGEMENT and maybe even see a few heads roll at corporate.

  49. dragonfire81 says:

    This also needs to be all over the media if it isn’t already/

  50. Ben Popken says:

    AA couldn’t comment because of the shame stuck in their throat.

  51. jackspat2 says:

    I think that AA should be put on America’s worst company at the moment. Almost everyone I know who flys them regularly has been screwed. Heck, I’ve only flew them twice and they lost my baggage in NY. There was no sorry, compensation, and they were late when they came to deliver the bag at 4 pm the next day. Bag tossed to the curb and sign here.

  52. Petra says:

    This is awful! I almost cried when I read the story…my mother is dying of cancer and I don’t know how I could possibly keep my sanity if something like this were to happen. In a situation like this, an apology doesn’t cut it. This man needs to be heavily compensated for the emotional anguish he and his daughter suffered during these four days. They already were grieving over the loss of someone they loved…adding this on top of it must have been beyond heartbreaking.

  53. Anonymous says:

    From personal experience, this seems to be a habit with AA. They do deliver to your house or location once it is not at the airport with the flight. On my flight to Costa Rica Feb. 2008, they lost my bag, a second bag from another member in my party and 2 other bags that I know of from another couple. My was delivered to my room late night, the couple received theirs at their second destination 3 days later, the other member of my party never received their bag. After filing an immediate claim, postponing plans, going to airport for 2 days, having to buy clothes, returning and filing detailed claim after form was mailed to me, and waiting 4 months without a response, was asked to fax it in again, 2 months later a notice was received that complaint was not filed in time and they were not responsible.
    If they can loose 4 bags in one flight, 1 permanently and they can loose a casket, how we trust them to fly anything and not loose it. If the baggage handlers are not responsible for luggage and the company is not responsible for their policies and the customers’ losses, how can we think that they are responsible enough to upkeept their planes and follow FAA standards. I believe the way they handle their baggage is a picture of how the company is run overall.
    If like United Breaks Guitars, American looses Baggage and American looses Corpse,how difficult is it to loose a bolt or a screw that compromises the integrity of the planes. Careless once, Careless twice, Careless thrice, Can we afford to keep taking chances with American Airlines? I am refusing to gamble with my life and my belongings anymore.
    No American, No United, Not Alive, and definitely not DEAD!
    Hope this person gets what they need for their family and their pain.