updated 12/14/2006 6:40:01 PM ET 2006-12-14T23:40:01

If you’re promised an organ for a transplant in New York, that doesn’t mean you own it.

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Citing 17th-century British common law on grave robbing, the state’s highest court unanimously ruled Thursday that a Florida man did not own a kidney promised to him by the widow of a lifelong friend.

The state Court of Appeals said it relied in part on Lord Coke’s 400-year-old pronouncement “that a corpse has no value” to decide that Robert Colavito had no right to Peter Lucia’s kidney and the New York Organ Donor Network legally gave it to another patient.

After Lucia died at a Long Island hospital in 2002, his wife decided to donate his kidneys to Colavito, who lived in Coral Springs, Fla.

But only the left kidney was sent to the Miami hospital where Colavito was awaiting surgery, and a surgeon found that the organ could not be transplanted because it was “irreparably damaged,” according to court documents.

Hospital officials contacted the nonprofit organ donor network to get the second kidney, but were told it was being given to someone else. Colavito had been placed at the top of the organ donor network’s kidney recipient list, but a match was not found before he died in June at age 55.

Colavito filed a federal lawsuit against the donor network and two of its officers, claiming they misappropriated his friend’s other kidney. After a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the suit, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked New York’s top court to consider issues of state law and resolve the case.

It its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals also ruled that since testing found neither kidney was compatible with Colavito, his estate had no case under state public health law.

Lawyer Richard Lerner, representing the organ donor network, said the decision puts New York law in step with nationwide organ donation protocols and federal regulations.

Victor Serby, representing the Colavito estate, disagreed with the ruling but said it left open the possibility of similar claims if a promised organ is compatible with the recipient.

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