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LOCKPORT — Niagara County may be sued over a coroner who stole brain tissue from a car crash victim, an appeals court ruled late last week.

Russell Jackman, a former county coroner, took brain tissue and other body parts from Richard Dunn, who was killed in a car crash April 13, 2012, on Saunders Settlement Road in Cambria. Jackman turned the body parts over to Vincent Salerno, then chief of Cambria Volunteer Fire Company, who used the body parts to train a dog to find cadavers.

Both Jackman and Salerno pleaded guilty to obstructing governmental administration, received conditional discharges and resigned from their posts.

The victim’s parents, Anita and Danny P. Dunn, Sr. filed a lawsuit in 2013 against the county, the fire company and Jackman and Salerno individually, for inflicting “extreme emotional, psychological and mental distress.”

Anita and Danny Dunn only learned of the tissue theft at the funeral for their son, who never consented to have his remains used for training a dog or any other “anatomical experimentation,” according to their suit.

In August 2017, Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Daniel Furlong ruled the county could not be sued over Jackman’s theft, and the fire department could not be sued over Salerno’s use of the body parts for dog training. 

However, appellate judges in Rochester reversed that ruling, ordering the county can be sued because Jackman’s actions may have fallen within the scope of his job as a coroner.

“There is evidence that Jackman’s decision to transfer a portion of the remains of (Richard Dunn to Salerno) was driven by a work-related purpose, rather than Jackman’s own personal interest,” wrote the judges with the Appellate Division of the Fourth Department.

But the panel also upheld the lower court ruling on the fire company’s legal responsibility, finding Salerno had “only personal interests” for seeking the tissue from Jackman.

“Salerno had no official duties that required him to train cadaver dogs or obtain human remains to train such dogs,” the appellate judges wrote.

Attorneys representing the Dunn family did not return a request for comment as of press time. 

Niagara County Attorney Claude Joerg questioned why the county would be held responsible but not the fire company.

“I don’t understand how they think that is within the scope of his employment,” Joerg said, referring to Jackman.

“With Salerno, there’s no question that that’s not proper,” Joerg added. “How come the same decision doesn’t apply to Niagara County?”

The appellate division’s ruling, released June 7, marks the second time the court has weighed in on the unusual case.

In May 2018, the Appellate Division reversed a lower court ruling that the county must provide Jackman a defense attorney of his choosing and reimburse his legal fees. The appellate judges found the county’s duty to defend an employee only exists when the employee is acting within his official duties.