Deceased teen athlete’s family sues funeral home

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Kendrick Johnson Rally

A rally was held at the Georgia State Capitol for Kendrick Johnson on Dec. 11, 2013. (Photo: Devon Sayers/CNN)

VALDOSTA, Ga. — The family of Kendrick Johnson — the south Georgia teen found dead in his high school gym a year ago — has filed a lawsuit against the funeral home that handled his remains, alleging negligence and fraud.

The lawsuit revolves around what the owner and employees of Harrington Funeral Home in Valdosta, Georgia, knew about the state of the young man’s body.

Johnson’s parents were shocked to learn in June, when they ordered a second autopsy, that the young man’s organs were missing and had been replaced with newspaper.

RELATED STORY: Teen athlete found dead in gym mat

An investigation by a state board found that the handling of the body by the funeral home did not violate the law.

Roy Copeland, a lawyer for Harrington Funeral Home and its owner, Antonio Harrington, said his client had not been served as of Wednesday and could not comment on something he has not seen.

In the lawsuit, filed January 31 and amended Wednesday, the family alleges that not only did the funeral home mishandle the organs, it disposed of them to thwart an investigation into Johnson’s cause of death.

“This lawsuit challenges the morally despicable, fraudulent, unlawful and unfair business practices” of Harrington Funeral Home, the court document states.

Antonio Harrington “intentionally, willfully and secretly” desecrated Johnson’s remains, the lawsuit claims.

It was a fraud intended to mislead and make it difficult to establish the manner and cause of death, the lawsuit alleges.

The Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly stood by its original determination that Johnson died by accident after getting caught up reaching for his shoe that fell inside a rolled-up gym mat.

CNN examined the 522-page police file and found that investigators spoke to 111 people, including 18 on the day Johnson’s body was found.

But the disbelieving Johnson family pushed in court, leading to a judge’s decision May 1 to grant their request to exhume their son’s body for an independent autopsy at their expense.

It was during that second autopsy that the missing organs were noticed. The doctor who carried out that autopsy determined that Johnson suffered blunt force trauma to the right neck and soft tissues, “consistent with inflicted injury,” challenging the authorities’ ruling that the death was accidental.

The lawsuit alleges that Harrington not only was aware that organs were missing, but “actively undertook measures to dispose of said organs in an effort to interfere” with the investigation.

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