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Former coroner’s investigator wins lawsuit against department


A judge has given a former coroner’s office investigator the option of accepting a reduction of a jury’s award of $8.4 million in her whistleblower suit against Los Angeles County -– in which she said she was forced into early retirement in 2017 in retaliation for raising suspicions about the death of an 8-year-old disabled boy -– to $3 million, or face a new trial on damages.

In a series of rulings Monday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert S. Draper denied a motion by county lawyers to grant a retrial of plaintiff Denise Bertone’s entire case as well as their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

On Dec. 17, a jury deliberated for less than a day before finding in favor of Bertone, who also is a registered nurse. She was hired in 2002 and for years investigated the deaths of infants and children, according to her lawsuit filed in November of 2018.

According to the suit, the coroner’s office received a case in 2013 involving the death of an 8-year-old disabled boy named Cole who was in a coma after being found head-first and submerged in water and clothing in a top-load washing machine by his stepmother, the suit stated. The boy was taken to a hospital, where the nonprofit organ and tissue harvesting company One Legacy obtained permission to have his organs harvested for donation after his death, the suit stated.

But when the boy kept breathing after being taken off a ventilator, the attending physician gave him a large dose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain, as a “comfort measure” that instead caused cardiac arrest and the boy subsequently died, the suit stated. One Legacy then harvested his organs, the suit stated.

Bertone investigated the boy’s death and told her supervisors she believed he died of a fentanyl overdose. Her office wrote on the death certificate that the cause of death was suffocation caused by submersion in water, according to the suit.