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High Court Limits Suits Over Corpse Desecration

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state Supreme Court, restricting legal claims for emotional distress, refused Monday to allow friends and relatives of more than 16,000 dead people to sue for the intentional mishandling of the corpses by a group of Los Angeles crematories and mortuaries.

In a 5-2 ruling, the justices said only close family members could bring negligence suits for what their lawyers called “Auschwitz-like conduct,” including commingling ashes from cremations, removing salable human organs and extracting gold and silver from the mouths of the corpses.

The high court substantially modified a June, 1990, ruling by a state Court of Appeal that would have allowed any relative or “close friend” of the decedents to sue for the deliberate mishandling of the corpses. Had the ruling stood, attorneys for the defendants said, more than 100,000 people could have been allowed to seek damages for emotional upset and outrage.

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Monday’s decision barred claims made for intentional misconduct--which could result in far greater damage awards--on grounds that the alleged mishandling of the corpses was not directed at the friends and relatives who brought suit.

The court, in a majority opinion by Justice Marvin R. Baxter, said that to collect damages for negligence, the plaintiffs must actually prove a relative’s remains were mishandled--rather than merely suspecting wrongdoing from news media and other reports.

Louis M. Marlin of Orange, a lawyer for the mortuaries, hailed the ruling and said it would have broad application to other emotional-distress disputes.

“This is a major and far-reaching victory for businesses and Californians in general,” he said.

Marlin said the decision is likely to limit liability in a widely watched case, pending before the high court, in which four Salinas residents are seeking damages for their fear that they have developed cancer from a nearby toxic disposal site.

“Those plaintiffs will now have to prove they actually drank contaminated water,” the attorney said.

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Elizabeth J. Cabraser of San Francisco and Edith R. Matthai of Los Angeles, lawyers for the plaintiffs, said that despite the limits set by the court, family members may still win damages on claims of negligence by the defendants.

“This sends a clear signal to funeral professionals that desecration will have consequences,” said Cabraser.

The case arose from a class-action lawsuit filed by Donald Paul Christensen, whose father was cremated in 1985, and other plaintiffs alleging negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress and mishandling of remains.

Named as defendants were a group of mortuaries accused of negligently arranging for funerals and cremations; several crematories operated by David W. Sconce and other family members, alleged to have intentionally mishandled the corpses; and Carolina Biological Supply Co., a firm accused of negligently buying organs taken from 1,000 bodies between 1980 and 1987.

A state appellate panel in Los Angeles had held that because of the “uniquely disturbing” nature of the allegations, the right to sue should be broadly expanded to allow relatives and friends with a “close personal relationship” to the dead to sue.

In appealing that ruling, lawyers for the defendants contended that no damages for emotional distress should be permitted because no plaintiffs saw the desecration of the corpses.

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Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded by saying that the mortuaries were trying to avoid responsibility for gross misconduct. Among other things, the lawyers said, up to 40 bodies were cremated at one time and their ashes commingled in 55-gallon drums before being distributed to survivors.

In 1989, David Sconce pleaded guilty to 21 criminal charges involving mishandling of the corpses and was sentenced to five years in prison.

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