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Cemetery accused of damaging burial vaults settles suit for $35 million

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A $35-million settlement was approved Thursday in a class action suit that could affect 25,000 families who have loved ones buried at a Mission Hills cemetery where employees were accused of damaging burial containers and discarding human remains.

The nine plaintiffs who represented the class alleged that over a period of 25 years, groundskeepers at Eden Memorial Park routinely broke burial vaults to make room for new graves and were instructed to throw the bones and human remains that fell out into a dump on the property.

According to the complaint, the cemetery attempted to maximize its profits by squeezing in as many graves as possible, leaving at most 3 inches of space in between them. Groundskeepers were thus unable to dig new graves without disturbing adjacent protective burial vaults. The complaint also cited an incident in which a human skull was allegedly thrown away.

Much of the case rested on an internal memo drawn up during a meeting with four Eden Memorial groundskeepers during an October 2007 interment verification training run by the cemetery's owner and operator, Service Corporation International. A behemoth in the funeral industry, the Houston-based SCI has a network of funeral, cremation and cemetery services across the country.

During the training, groundskeepers mentioned how they did things at Eden Memorial and were pulled into an office by administrators. An assistant took notes and later drafted the memo.

"They are told to make vaults/caskets fit regardless of the size of the grave. 'Making it fit' included breaking the vaults or caskets to allow room for the new interment," the memo read. "All four groundsmen agreed when they said they fear if the public were to find out about this that the park would be closed and they would all lose their jobs."

The employees also said that some remains were thrown out after vaults were broken and that they were told "the only thing that matters is closing the deal/sale even if it means breaking vaults and caskets to make the new one fit," according to the memo, which was presented as evidence in the case.

The defense denied the allegations and argued that numerous inspections did not find proof of damaged vaults.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed in 2009, state officials said they had found no evidence of mass grave disturbances at Eden Memorial.

SCI has faced similar allegations at two Florida cemeteries. In 2003, the Florida attorney general filed criminal charges against the company, a vice president and a superintendent. The attorney general charged that vaults and caskets were destroyed by backhoes because the same plot had been sold twice and that remains were scattered in adjacent fields. The company paid more than $100 million in settlements with families.

Steven Gurnee, who represented SCI in the Eden Memorial case, said the company was confident in its defense but decided to settle because the trial was dragging on. Three people had been called to the witness stand since testimony began two weeks ago in Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marc Marmaro's courtroom.

"It made economic sense to dispose of the case," Gurnee said. "Had it proceeded to a verdict, we would have prevailed."

Michael Avenatti, who represents the plaintiffs, said settlement negotiations had been off and on for a number of months before the parties reached an agreement.

"This is no coupon settlement," he said. "It has been a very long and difficult case but the most rewarding of my career. It was humbling to represent these families because of what they've been through and the amount of faith they've put in our firm."

The settlement of $35,250,000 will grant refunds to plaintiffs who wish to disinter their loved ones as well as those who have pre-purchased unused burial plots. Others who decide to keep their grave at Eden Memorial are also eligible to submit a claim. Plaintiffs will be allowed to conduct a re-sanctification ceremony. The figure also includes attorney fees, and a $20,000 payment to each of the class representatives.

SCI is required take measures that will prevent the alleged problems from occurring in the future, such as using metal rods to probe the grave and determine where it is safe to dig. In addition, it must provide notice and conduct repairs if a damaged burial container is discovered. SCI must disclose to future customers the risk of damage when making interments. Avenatti estimates those measures will cost the company an additional $45 million or more.

The settlement is scheduled to be finalized May 15.

corina.knoll@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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