torso trouble —

Medical waste company sues health system over hidden human torso

The suit also alleges deceit, staged photos, and hidden hazardous waste.

Bags to hold clinical samples labeled with Sanford Health.
Enlarge / Bags to hold clinical samples labeled with Sanford Health.

A medical waste disposal company operating in Fargo, North Dakota, has filed a scathing lawsuit against health care system Sanford Health. The lawsuit claims—among many things—that Sanford employees tried to surreptitiously unload a rotting human torso hidden in a plastic container at the facility, faking a signature accepting the delivery in the process. The facility, by law, is not authorized to handle human remains.

The torso incident was among a string of alleged brazen acts and "egregious conduct" by Sanford employees. The disposal company—Monarch Waste Technologies (MWT)—accuses Sanford employees of repeatedly and knowingly mishandling, mislabeling, and improperly delivering medical waste to its treatment facility in their short-lived relationship. That includes failing to sort medical waste, hiding hazardous waste bags in other, non-hazardous waste containers, and delivering waste in improper containers that could leak.

The two companies had signed two 10-year contracts in September 2020, a lease agreement for the treatment facility and a waste disposal agreement. Two years prior to that, Sanford's own medical waste incinerator was shut down after failing emissions standards. It had also allegedly raised complaints among residents, who accused Sanford of allowing medical waste, such as glass vials of blood, to be strewn around the incineration facility, sometimes ending up on residents' property.

MWT initially helped Sanford ship medical waste to an MWT facility in New Mexico. But then the two went in together on a dedicated waste treatment facility in Fargo, for which MWT took out a $6 million loan that Sanford was required to make payments on.

The situation allegedly went badly from the start, with Sanford immediately failing to follow the waste disposal rules. And, after two years of repeated problems, things apparently went from negligent to nefarious. In late February of 2023, MWT claims a Sanford employee broke into its facility, threw waste around on the floor, and took pictures, which might suggest that MWT was out of compliance and breaking their contract. The Sanford employee then returned the waste to the proper containers before leaving. The whole staged photo shoot and subsequent cleanup was caught on the MWT's surveillance cameras.

“Just disturbing”

On March 3, the torso showed up. A Sanford employee allegedly signed a waste manifest indicating that MWT had accepted the waste, even though only MWT employees could accept and sign for waste deliveries. The hidden torso was discovered by MWT employees four days later when employees noticed a "rotten and putrid smell." MWT immediately rejected the remains and filed a form with the North Dakota Environmental Quality Department reporting the incident. MWT says it notified Sanford, and the torso then "simply disappeared" without any notification to MWT.

The next day, March 8, Sanford employees allegedly busted into the facility, without notice or approval, and began removing waste that was already in the legal custody of MWT. This happened again on March 9, but this time Sanford employees also turned off the water line to the treatment facility's boiler, which operated at 1,200° Fahrenheit. The water shutoff risked a deadly explosion and cracked the boiler, MWT said. Sanford's lawyers allegedly told MWT in a subsequent email that shutting off the water was a tactic that was "part of the negotiation."

In April, Sanford sent MWT a termination notice along with the photos of the staged scene in February. The photos were dated as if they were taken in March.

"Put simply, this relationship has turned from a mutually beneficial, environmentally sound solution for the disposal of medical waste, and potentially positive business relationship, to a made-for television movie complete with decaying human remains and staged photographs," MWT wrote in its lawsuit.

In a statement to KFYR in North Dakota, MWT's CEO emphasized that the company never deals with human remains. "It’s against protocols," he said. "It’s against every part of regulations as we run facilities throughout the country. Typically, recognizable body parts that big, like a torso with things cut off, that goes to proper treatment for a crematorium, not through a shredder. And especially when it’s done under cover of us not knowing. It’s just disturbing."

A spokesperson for Sanford, meanwhile, denied any wrongdoing, telling the outlet: “This lawsuit is the unfortunate result of Monarch’s demonstrated inability to perform waste disposal services it had contractually agreed to perform. [Sanford] denies the allegations made by Monarch, will soon be filing claims of its own against Monarch and otherwise looks forward to defending itself in this case."

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