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In re Coroner's Inquest in Death of Birkholz

Supreme Court of Wyoming

February 15, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE CORONER'S INQUEST IN THE DEATH OF ANTHONY LEE BIRKHOLZ,
v.
TETON COUNTY CORONER, Appellee (Respondent). PAUL CASSIDY and BRUCE HAYSE, M.D., Appellants (Petitioners),

          Appeal from the District Court of Teton County The Honorable Timothy C. Day, Judge

          Representing Appellants: Frank R. Chapman, Marci Crank Bramlet, and Patrick J. Lewallen, Chapman Valdez & Lansing, Casper, Wyoming; Deidre J. Bainbridge, Jackson, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Lewallen.

          Representing Appellee: Keith M. Gingery, Teton County Attorney's Office, Jackson, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Gingery.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

          GRAY, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Appellants, Paul Cassidy and Bruce Hayse, M.D., filed a W.R.C.P. Rule 60 motion to set aside the Coroner's Inquest Verdict. The district court dismissed the motion, concluding it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. We affirm.

         ISSUE

         [¶2] Appellants raise two issues, one of which is dispositive and rephrased as:

Does the district court have subject matter jurisdiction in a post-coroner inquest proceeding?

         We do not address Appellants' second issue, whether post-inquest proceedings are governed by Wyoming's Administrative Procedure Act because that question is moot: the time for an administrative appeal has passed. When no controversary exists, courts will not consume their time dealing with moot questions. Reno Livestock Corp. v. Sun Oil Co., 638 P.2d 147, 154 (Wyo. 1981); Northern Utilities, Inc. v. Public Service Commission, 617 P.2d 1079 (Wyo. 1980).

         FACTS

         [¶3] This case arises from a seldom used proceeding, the coroner's inquest. Anthony Lee Birkholz and Dr. Hayse were among a group of six people gathered at Dr. Hayse's home in the early morning hours of January 17, 2017. While at Dr. Hayse's house, Mr. Birkholz suffered a medical event and 911 was called. An ambulance transported him to St. John's Medical Center in Jackson, Wyoming. He was subsequently transferred to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Mr. Birkholz died January 18, 2017. Kenneth Krell, M.D., an Idaho physician who cared for him in the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, signed his death certificate, which stated that the cause of death was brain death due to out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.

         [¶4] Nearly four months later, the Teton County Coroner, Brent Blue, M.D., conducted a coroner's inquest. Dr. Blue empaneled a jury, called witnesses, and presided over the inquest. The proceedings were transcribed. Dr. Blue questioned witnesses, and at times, gratuitously construed witness testimony for the jury. He spoke with individuals who were not called as witnesses and reported these conversations to the inquest jury. Dr. Blue presented Mr. Birkholz's toxicology results to the inquest jury. No court order authorized the release of these reports and no notice of the public release was given to Mr. Birkholz's father, Paul Cassidy.

          [¶5] The proceeding resulted in a Coroner's Inquest Verdict of "Death due to Aspiration Secondary to Alcohol and 5-methoxy-DMT Ingestion." The verdict listed contributing factors as failure to timely call 911 and failure to protect his head and airway when dragging Mr. Birkholz down the stairs. The Coroner's Inquest Verdict was filed in the District Court of Teton County, Ninth Judicial District Agency No. 1701P-2322. Paul Cassidy and Dr. Hayse filed a W.R.C.P. Rule 60 motion to set aside the ...


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