ContractsProf Blog

Editor: D. A. Jeremy Telman
Valparaiso Univ. Law School

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Civil or Criminal, or Both?

The AP is reporting a macabre story: Robert Winston, an ex-funeral director from McKeesport, Pennsylvania, allegedly failed to cremate the remains of several infants sent to him from a nearby hospital. The hospital paid Winston $8,900 to arrange for the cremation of 19 babies, who died shortly after birth, and to dispose of more than 300 fetuses and biohazard containers holding fetal remains. Instead of performing the cremation as promised, Winston allegedly stored the remains in the garage of his former home.

Winston is now charged with the crimes of “abuse of a corpse” and “theft by deception.” His attorney’s response:

“This is a breach of contract, if anything.”

Is this really a compelling defense strategy? Winston’s actions can certainly be both; that is, both criminally improper and a breach of contract. Certainly, the hospital did not receive the benefit of its bargain with Winston. But contract law does not preclude societal punishment of Winston for his outrageous (in)actions -- this is more appropriately tasked to the criminal system. Thus, it seems a weak defense strategy to point to contract law as a scapegoat – it is not an either/or situation.

[Meredith R. Miller]

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