But an Eyewitness News investigation shows how simple safeguards were ignored, making a donor out of someone who never wanted to be.
It's among the most personal decisions one can make, whether to donate your organs after death. Many do, but many more do not.
It's why this case is so disturbing and why it will likely make you wonder how often similar mistakes are made.
Every day, thousands of new Yorkers who renew their drivers license are asked whether they want to register to donate their organs when they die. Margaret Lanza chose not to register and she clearly indicated that by not signing the donor consent on her license application. This most private of wishes was then left to someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles to enter into a database. And it appears he or she got it wrong.
"Someone at DMV made a data entry error and registered Margret Lanza in the New York donor organ registry without her consent," said Bonita Zelman, the Lanza family's attorney.
So last year, when Lanza collapsed unexpectedly and died, the hospital notified the donor registry and her name came up as a registered eye and organ donor. For health reasons, the organs were not taken, but her eyes were, without, the family claims, notifying them until after the fact.
"They started thanking me for my mother's gift," daughter Jo Drever said.
Drever spoke to Eyewitness News reporter Jim Hoffer. She said the day after her mother died, she got a call thanking her for her mother's donation.
"My mother did not consent," she said. "They took away her right to be buried in the form she wished to buried in. This is something I'm going to have to live with the rest of my life."
When state lawmakers passed the law allowing donor registration through license renewal, the Department of Motor Vehicles knew mistakes like this could happen. The DMV commissioner even warned the assembly of potential "data entry error" that could ' result in harvesting of organs of a non-consenting party." And it appears that is exactly what happened when the eye bank mistakenly took Lanza's eyes.
"They took no action to have effective checks and balances in the system, in the DMV to prevent just this type of horrible error from occurring," Zelman said.
The Department of Motor Vehicles declined to comment, as did the hospital, which the family claims failed to notify them before the eyes were taken. The daughter is suing claiming "wrongful mutilation" of her mother.
"This was not a wish of the family and definitely not a wish of my mother," she said. "And I must do everything I can to support that and make that right."
The Department of Motor Vehicle would not comment on whether this has happened before since the license-based donor registry became law four years ago.
The family hopes their lawsuit will lead to more safeguards.
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