OC jury awards $1.5 million to family members who were mistakenly told man had died

City News Service
Wednesday, April 20, 2022
Jury awards $1.5M to family in erroneous notification of man's death
A jury handed down a $1.5 million verdict for a father and sister who were wrongly told by Orange County Sheriff's Department officials that a family member had died.

SANTA ANA , Calif. (CNS) -- An Orange County jury on Tuesday handed down a $1.5 million verdict for a father and sister who were wrongly told by officials with the Orange County Sheriff's Department that a family member had died.

Jurors, who deliberated for about three hours, awarded $1.1 million for the father of Frankie Kerrigan and $400,000 for his sister. The family's attorney had argued for $3 million each for the father and sister.

"This has been an injustice to our family from the very beginning,'' the father, Frank Kerrigan, said. "We have fought this legal fight for five years and we are grateful to the Orange County jurors who recognized the injustice. We are hopeful this verdict sends a message so this never happens to any family anywhere.''

The family's attorney, Jim DeSimone, told City News Service, "First of all, we're very grateful the jury made this decision in less than three hours time so it seems that we did prove our case overwhelmingly in court and the jury agreed with us.''

DeSimone added, "The Kerrigan family feels vindicated and thankful that the story was told and the jury found in their favor. They truly hope the verdict does send a message both to Orange County and other governmental agencies that they need to show care and concern with anyone who has a Frankie or somebody mentally ill and on the streets. You should do your due diligence and do your job in terms of communicating with a family, and especially when it's to let them know a family member is dead.''

DeSimone said the family was wrongly told by deputies in the coroner's office that the body was identified by sight and by fingerprints, both of which were untrue.

The family of Frankie Kerrigan of Riverside County, who was mistakenly told he was dead, filed a lawsuit against Orange County in 2017 claiming negligence.

"They put this family through unbelievable trauma,'' DeSimone said. "They should have compensated the family five years ago.''

Efforts to reach attorneys for the county were unsuccessful.

The family members of Frankie Kerrigan alleged intentional and negligent misrepresentation. Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's Department officials wrongly informed Kerrigan's family that he was found dead outside a Verizon store in Fountain Valley, but 17 days later Kerrigan showed up for a visit with a family friend, who had attended Kerrigan's funeral at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

It turned out the transient found dead outside the store on May 6, 2017, was 54-year-old John Dean Dickens. An officer who found the body believed it was Kerrigan, so deputy coroner David Ralsten printed off a copy of Kerrigan's state identification and concluded it was the same person, DeSimone told jurors.

The identification, however, was about 11 or 12 years old, DeSimone said. That afternoon, Riverside County sheriff's deputies left a note for Kerrigan's father, Francis Kerrigan, to call the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's Department. An official with the coroner's office in Orange County informed Kerrigan that his son was found dead. Fingerprint scans were sent that day to law enforcement databases, so the identification was not confirmed, DeSimone said.

In the meantime, the family held a funeral Mass on May 16 and the body was buried at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery near Kerrigan's mother.

Ralsten went on vacation, and while he was away there was a match on the fingerprints and it was Dickens, but no one in the office picked up on the computer message, DeSimone said.

The family friend, who served as a pallbearer at the open-casket funeral, called the Kerrigans on May 23 to tell them Frankie Kerrigan was still alive. The family notified Orange County sheriff's officials days later, and on June 1, 2017, the coroner's office informed the Kerrigan family that the dead person was Dickens.