A Newport Beach mortuary that bungled a cremation and burial must pay $300,000 to an 81-year-widow for the distress it caused her, an Orange County jury ruled Friday.
The verdict in favor of Ruth Wiese was expected to be an indication of the potential range of damages in hundreds of lawsuits against other crematories and mortuaries now pending in Southern California.
Jurors found that Pacific View Memorial Park and Cemetery had mishandled the remains of Arthur Wiese in 1984, in part by commingling his ashes with those of others and by delaying burial for seven weeks.
“It shows they can’t get by with it,” Ruth Wiese said after the verdict. “What they did was inhuman and disgraceful.”
But Wiese, of Corona del Mar, who still doesn’t know for sure where her husband’s ashes are, said she could not be satisfied.
“I’d like to remember all the good times I had with him, but I can’t,” she said.
The winning lawyer, Federico C. Sayre of Los Angeles, said he will file a class-action lawsuit next week against the Newport Beach crematory, mortuary and cemetery on behalf of “hundreds” of its customers between 1972 and 1984.
A crematory operator at Pacific View testified in the trial that human ashes routinely were intermingled in that period.
Pablo Enriquez, 69, now living in Mexico, also testified that teeth--often attached to crowns and artificial dental work made of precious metal--were routinely separated from other remains and separately disposed of. Those dental remains were often thrown in the garbage, Sayre contended.
Jurors, who began hearing the case on Jan. 20 before Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard N. Parslow, Jr., deliberated two days.
Jury member Joan Mahurin of Newport Beach said jurors were not convinced that Pacific View engaged in the illegal practice of multiple cremations, as Sayre had claimed.
But she pointed to key, uncontradicted testimony that when Arthur Wiese’s remains were exhumed last fall under court order, the urn contained a tooth that wasn’t his.
“We didn’t think there were multiple cremations,” said Mahurin, whose mother is buried in Pacific View Cemetery. “But we figured he should have all been there (in the urn).”
The size of the verdict was considered significant because of a key ruling Parslow made in the case last week.
Sayre had argued that his case proved that Pacific View intentionally inflicted distress on Wiese, a claim which could have allowed jurors to return punitive damages.
Parslow denied the request. Ironically, Sayre said after the verdict that he would ask for a new trial on the punitive damages issue alone.
Mortuary counsel Marshall T. Hunt said the case would be reviewed for possible appeal. Hunt said jurors had insufficient evidence to decide how much money Wiese deserved for emotional distress.
The mortuary carried $35 million in insurance. Sayre had urged jurors to make their verdict a “symbol” of what he called the “disgusting, uncivilized practices” of Pacific View.
Similar allegations of illegal multiple cremations and commingling of ashes are contained in more than 220 lawsuits now pending against Harbor Lawn of Costa Mesa and other mortuaries and the Neptune Society of Orange County, a firm which arranges cremations and burials, often at sea. Punitive damages are sought in those consolidated cases.
Sayre said partial proposed settlements of the massive litigation would provide about $30,000 per plaintiff. He said the Wiese verdict demonstrates that the money damages are too low. Sayre’s co-counsel in the Wiese case is Tustin attorney Betty J. McMullen, who represents the vast majority of the Neptune Society plaintiffs.
Wiese’s husband, a retired industrialist, died April 7, 1984. The memorial service was held April 12, and Wiese testified that she expected her late husband’s remains to be cremated and buried immediately.
She testified that for seven weeks, she visited the grave site and quietly mourned her husband. Then in early June, she discovered to her horror that the grave apparently had been opened.
When she inquired, a Pacific View official told her that everything was in order. He said her husband’s remains had been buried the preceding Monday, seven weeks after the service.
Pacific View contended that the contract included no specific dates for cremation or burial. Hunt acknowledged that a seven-week delay was too long, but contended that Wiese had not suffered substantial damages as a result. He suggested that Wiese was more angry than distressed.
Considered a Cause
Wiese wept quietly as jurors congratulated her after the verdict.
She tearfully recalled what she termed “the atrocities” in the handling of her husband’s cremation and burial, saying she considered the case “a cause.”
“My husband was a great man,” she said. “They have desecrated my memory of him. I can’t think of him without thinking of all the things that came out in this case.”
Wiese, who turned 81 last Friday, said she had hoped that the case would come to mean something.
“Everybody seems to want to sweep it all under the rug. I wanted to bring it out.”
“I’m not the only one who was deceived,” Wiese said. “I’m sure of that.”