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Accused of breaking burial vaults, Mission Hills cemetery settles suit

Human InterestCourts and the Judiciary

Relatives of loved ones buried at Eden Memorial Park cemetery in Mission Hills will be able to resanctify their remains after reaching a class action settlement Thursday that came after operators allegedly broke burial vaults to make room for new graves, according to a lawsuit.

The $35-million settlement could affect 25,000 families. Additionally, the cemetery's owner and operator, Service Corp. International, must take measures to prevent the alleged problems from occurring in the future, including providing notice if a damaged burial container is discovered and needs repair.

Plaintiffs' attorney Michael Avenatti estimates those measures will cost the company an additional $45 million or more.

The nine plaintiffs in the case represented a class that alleged groundskeepers at the cemetery routinely broke burial vaults to make room for new graves and were told to throw the bones and human remains that fell out into a dump. The actions occurred over a period of 25 years, the plantiffs alleged.

Houston-based SCI is a dominating force in the funeral industry with a network of funeral, cremation and cemetery services across the country.

An internal memo drawn up during a meeting with four groundskeepers during a training run by SCI in October 2007 seemed to be at the center of the case.

At that training, the groundskeepers mentioned how they did things and were pulled into an office by administrators where 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 defense strongly denied the allegations.

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."

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. 

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corina.knoll@latimes.com

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