Each time Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Wornstaff was deployed to Iraq, he sat down with his wife and talked about funeral arrangements if he would die while serving overseas.
All three times he told his wife, Shawnna, he wanted to have an open-casket wake and funeral. He also wanted to wear his Army uniform.
Wornstaff, 44, died in May after a lawn mower he was operating in Reservoir Park flipped and landed in Sippo Creek. His family planned to hold the funeral they had talked about during Wornstaff’s military career.
However, they were notified by the Stark County Coroner’s Office the body of their loved one was too decomposed for an open casket, according to a lawsuit.
The Wornstaff family filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday afternoon against Aultman Hospital in Canton alleging the hospital and the staff failed to properly care for Wornstaff’s body after he died.
The family is being represented by managing partner Tom Merriman of Merriman Legando Williams & Klang.
“People have …. a fundamental right to mourn the death of their spouse or parent in the manner that they see fit,” Merriman said. “They wanted an open casket, and they weren’t able to do that. To know that the body decomposed in the hospital is outrageous.”
According to the complaint:
On May 15, the day of the accident, Wornstaff was taken to Aultman Hospital. He died two days later after receiving treatment in the surgical intensive care unit.
Wornstaff was part of a crew mowing in the park at 905 Sippo Boulevard NE, driving along the creek near the bridge off Phillips Road NE when the mower flipped.
According to a Stark County Coroner’s report, in the 21 hours between his death on May 17 and the time the coroner received the body, it developed a strong odor of decomposition. There were fluids coming from his nose and mouth, and his body had changed in color.
Jason Clevenger, communication specialist with Aultman Hospital, said the hospital declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Shawnna Wornstaff was notified of her husband’s condition the day she went to the funeral home to begin preparations.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Wornstaff told The Independent during an interview at her home Wednesday evening. “I was shocked, horrified. How was this even possible? … I felt that he was so discarded. He wasn’t treated with dignity and respect. How could anybody let this happen to a human being?”
As a nurse herself, Wornstaff understands the importance of after-death care to preserve the body and wonders what went wrong.
She trained at the Aultman College of Nursing and completed clinical hours at Aultman Hospital as a student, she said.
In February, both of Robert Wornstaff’s parents died within a three-day span, Shawnna Wornstaff said.
Again, the couple sat down and outlined funeral arrangements if anything were to happen to one of them.
“I was very much aware of what he wanted,” she said.
The family had to change plans and put his military uniform, medals and other memorabilia on display at the funeral. A slide show included photos and quotes from those who knew and loved him.
“We tried to do the best we could to honor him with what we had,” Wornstaff said.
Searching for answers
On the day of the accident, Wornstaff was working and received a phone call from the Parks and Recreation Department telling her about the accident. On her drive, Wornstaff called the hospital.
She knew from her brief conversation with a nurse the outlook was not good.
“It was scary,” she said, adding city officials and her son also went to the hospital. “… It was completely unexpected because the day started out like any other day.”
Coping with the loss has been difficult for Wornstaff and her children — Hayden, 19, and Alyson, 13 — she said. Not having the funeral they envisioned during her husband’s 21 years of military service made it difficult to find closure, she said.
The Wornstaffs each have had difficulty sleeping and have sought counseling, Shawnna Wornstaff said.
Hayden Wornstaff wasn’t at the hospital when his father died. He had gone home to get his mother fresh clothes and a few belongings.
“It’s not just a body; it’s someone’s husband, someone people look up to,” the 19-year-old said. “No one deserves that. I wasn’t there to say my final goodbyes.”
After his father’s death, Wornstaff struggled with insomnia and depression, he said.
He and his father were close, he said, adding they enjoyed joking about their favorite movies, watching sports and going to the gym.
“I haven’t been the same since everything happened,” Wornstaff said.
As the case moves forward, the family hopes to understand what went wrong — was it a mechanical malfunction or neglect by hospital staff?
“I don’t feel like he was honored,” Shawnna Wornstaff said. “I want them held accountable. I don’t want someone else to go through this. … I want to figure out what happened so nobody goes through that.”
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