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Case Study # 1 – Blown to Bits


Your Boss Will Read, Listen To, and Learn From

One of the simplest and most powerful ways to help those we advise, understand and learn from the nature of a scenario is to create a simple, sensible, readable, teachable case study based on real circumstances delivered in a productive, constructive, abbreviated format. This example is useful and powerful because it tells a story, that is itself unusual, even barely believable, but never the less true. Each section is part of the lesson this example teaches.

The value of a story, a parable, example or a case study are the memorable lessons, self-evident truths, or meaningful punch line they generate. Any of the above that fails to have a punch line is just an anecdote and a disappointment.

Most academic medical centers receive cadavers as gifts from families and individuals to further scientific study at the discretion of the recipient institutions. When there is a surplus of cadavers, there are brokers who take these bodies off the hands of medical institutions and providers to sell them to other research organizations and companies.

Case # 1 Blown to Bits

The Company: The medical school at Southwestern State, a university in the U.S. with a very favorable reputation among academic institutions in its class, found itself in the odd situation of having a surplus of cadavers. Southwestern turned over a dozen or so gift cadavers to a broker who, in turn, sold them to a munitions manufacturer that needed to study the explosive impacts of some of its products on human subjects.

The Crisis: The problem arose when the Kendall family, who had contributed a cadaver, decided they wanted the body returned following whatever scientific use it was put to. It didn’t take long to make some inquiries and discover that their loved one’s body had been provided to the munitions manufacture and blown to bits. Upon being told, the family immediately hired an attorney, who filed suit for recovery of the body.

The Complexities: The Kendall family and their attorney launched their media campaign with a very tearful and well attended press conference, which caused an immediate and extraordinary public uproar. In fact, the uproar was felt throughout the academic medical community. Philanthropic journals carried stories warning potential future donors. More gruesome details became available courtesy of an employee of the explosives company. More families began to come forward inquiring about what had become of the bodies of their loved ones. At this point, the plight of the grieving Kendall family, the reputations of all those involved, the regulatory environment, and the goodwill of Southwestern State Medical Center become the focus of high-profile analysis and investigation. The questions are really quite predictable:

  1. Why were the families notified and given the choice of deciding how their gift was to be utilized?
  2. Whose idea was this and why wasn’t there better oversight by the medical school and the University?
  3. How could this gruesome practice of trading in cadavers be kept hidden from the donors, the university, and the people of the state?
  4. Why aren’t there laws against these grave robbing activities?
  5. Who would compensate the families for this extraordinary double loss of a loved one?
  6. Can any remains be recovered and reinterred?

The Approach: The institution immediately issued a public apology, though there was an extraordinary internal struggle among the attorneys, medical personnel, and the university administration over doing this so quickly. The lawyers counseled against such a dramatic admission so early in the event.

A particularly skillful forensic pathologist was asked by the university to become the spokesperson for all questions on these matters. His instructions were simple and straightforward: be candid, be empathetic, be disclosive, explain, teach, elaborate, be apologetic, and answer every question.

University established a process whereby the attorneys of other families who had come forward could receive instructions on the most direct methods for filing lawsuits. At the same time the, the university retained a law firm specializing in settlements, despite the protestations of their defense counsel.

The Kendalls and other families were invited to help plan a permanent memorial honoring the memory of those who died “a second time.”

The Culmination: The outcome of this approach is pretty easy to forecast:

  • All litigation was settled out-of-court, within a few m
  • The initial visibility in connection with the story evaporated pretty quickly
  • Southwestern State University Medical School received an unexpected substantial gift from one family.
  • All cadaver donors received explicit instructions about how loved ones would be treated. In addition, every donor was allowed to request the right to provide permission for the ultimate scientific use of their loved one’s remains.
  • A tracking system was put in place so that, at any given time, family members could know the location and the condition of the loved ones.

Lessons Learned: By responding promptly with compassion to needs of the family, the university established a sound precedent for dealing with this kind of crisis. In addition, the university learned that there are leadership decisions that supersede what lawyers may recommend. The tougher the scenario, the more challenging the issues, the greater the level of leadership will be, whatever advisors advise.

The Conclusions

  • Candor builds trust even when the news is horrible or horrify
  • Apology is perhaps the most powerful behavior to detoxify explosively negative sit
  • Apologies expedite settlement and deter
  • Victim and survivor participation in the resolution of suffering, fear, abuse, and mistakes helps everyone recover more quickly.
  • Perpetrator engagement with the victims and survivors changes the tone in a very positive, respectful way that leads to


Please Note:

I’m happy to review and comment on your case studies. Send your case study drafts or outlines to me at


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