The Neptune Society has offered to pay $2,675,000 in damages to Southern California residents who claim a Costa Mesa crematory illegally burned and in some cases lost the remains of loved ones.
About $14 million has already been pledged by the operators of the crematory, Harbor Lawn Memorial Park. Those who would benefit from the fund include 450 people who have already filed lawsuits and an estimated 10,000 other direct and indirect customers of the crematory between 1978 and 1985.
The Neptune Society arranges for cremations and burial at sea. Both the Neptune Society of Orange County and the Neptune Society Corp., which licenses use of the name, are involved in the offer.
If accepted, the proposal would provide the second of three major pieces in settlement of the complex and massive litigation. About a dozen local mortuaries, which contracted with Harbor Lawn for cremation services, are also defendants in the case.
The deal, struck Thursday, was worked out before Orange County Superior Judge Jerrold S. Oliver, who also presided over discussions that led to the breakthrough Harbor Lawn settlement last July.
Payments to 380
That deal involved early payments to the 380 people who had filed suit by mid-1986 and who had borne the largest share of litigation expense.
Before any of the settlements go through, they must gain court approval at hearings scheduled to begin in March. The main legal issue is whether a judge will approve a unique aspect of the deal that mandates that all people who could file claims do so as part of a class-action lawsuit. The final amounts of money paid to individual plaintiffs depends principally on how quickly they filed their claims.
The arrangement has the approval of four insurers for the two Neptune entities, according to Thomas Mercer, lawyer for Neptune. Mercer declined to state the amount of the proposal, saying Oliver had ordered him not to discuss it.
"We're part of the mopping-up operations," Mercer said. "The large money was paid by the Harbor Lawn insurers. We were tainted by the Harbor Lawn operation because the Neptune Society sent a large number of bodies there."
The lawsuits allege that corpses were stuffed into retorts and cremated en masse at Harbor Lawn, commingling ashes so that remains often may never be identified with precision.
Mercer said the Neptune Society has not been accused of mishandling remains in the Southern California case. Another lawsuit pending in Northern California alleges that the Neptune affiliate there defaulted on its contractual promises to dispose of remains in a dignified manner.
The Neptune Society of Orange County continues to operate. Harbor Lawn filed for bankruptcy last summer.
Mercer said the offer will not remain open beyond the middle of March.
Tustin lawyer Betty J. McMullen, who represents the vast majority of plaintiffs, said she would ask clients whether they would be willing to accept the offer.