Families sue after identities of teen crash victims are switched at scene

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ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — The families of two teenagers killed in a car accident in July 2019 have filed lawsuits after it was revealed the girls’ bodies were misidentified at the crash scene.

Fifteen-year-old Samara Cooks and 18-year-old Deleigha Gibson were killed when their car hit a utility pole on Highway 95A in Escambia County, located along the state’s western border with Alabama.

Florida Highway Patrol said at the time of the accident that four people were riding north on Highway 95A in a 2007 Ford Focus when it veered into the east shoulder of the road Coweta Road. The car started to rotate clockwise when the left side of it hit a utility pole.

The girls’ parents say authorities initially mixed up the bodies of Gibson and Cooks, setting off a series of mistakes that only came to light when the Samara Cooks’ family discovered the funeral home was preparing the wrong body for burial.

An attorney for the victims’ families, Ryan Julison, said the families will sue the Florida Highway Patrol, the Pensacola District Commander, Escambia County Coroner, Escambia County Medical Examiner’s Office and the funeral homes who handled the teens’ funeral arrangements after it was revealed that they were misidentified at the crash scene.

Julison released the following statement Thursday night:

The families of Deleigha Gibson, 18, and Samara Cooks, 15, will address media tomorrow in Pensacola at 11 a.m. regarding the lawsuits.  The teens were passengers in a car that swerved and crashed in unincorporated Escambia County July 29, 2019.  Both teens died from injuries sustained in the crash.

According to the complaints, even though Gibson and Cooks were different ages, heights and weights, FHP troopers misidentified their bodies at the scene of the crash which led to Gibson being labeled as Cooks and vice-versa.  This switch led to a series of other incidents involving the Coroner, Medical Examiner and funeral homes.

The complaints allege that when the Medical Examiner received the bodies, it did not properly verify the identity of the bodies and as a result, the bodies remained incorrectly labeled.  Despite their attempts, neither family was allowed to view their respective daughters’ bodies at the Medical Examiner’s office with the ME citing it was ‘not their policy’ to allow for the viewing.  

The Medical Examiner then released the wrong bodies to the wrong funeral homes who then embalmed the wrong bodies without authorization and in a way that was unsatisfactory to both families.

Upon arriving at Faith Chapel, the funeral home hired by the Cooks family to prepare Samara Cooks’ body, they discovered that the body being prepared was actually that of Deleigha Gibson.  One of the Cooks’ family members arrived at Tracy Morton Funeral Home, where the Gibson family was waiting, and stated that the funeral home had the wrong body.  When the Gibson family overheard this conversation, they demanded to see Deleigha’s body and it was only then that the funeral home confirmed that they actually had the body of Samara Cooks, who was still tagged as Deleigha Gibson.

To add an unprecedented layer to this horrific tragedy, Deleigha Gibson was an organ donor and because her body was misidentified, Gibson’s body was not properly handled and her organs were not preserved. Conversely, upon information and belief, Samara Cooks, who was not an organ donor, had her organs harvested without parental consent.  
The families of Gibson and Cooks are demanding that Florida Highway Patrol, Pensacola District Commander, Escambia Coroner, and Escambia Medical Examiner change their respective policies and procedures to ensure that this doesn’t happen to another family.

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