Whose body is lying in grave plot No. 555A? That is the $1-million question before a Ventura County judge, who is being asked to OK exhumation of the remains from a Westlake Village cemetery.
Lyndy Lutton-Ward of Thousand Oaks believes Pierce Bros. Valley Oaks Mortuary put another woman's remains in the plot reserved for the body of her 82-year-old mother. And she says she has proof--lab tests on a lock of the body's hair, which she says don't match her mother's.
Lutton-Ward has sued the mortuary for $1 million, claiming she has suffered nightmares, mental anguish and guilt over the alleged mishandling of her mother's remains.
Pierce Bros. denies there was any body switching and is asking Superior Court Judge Glen Reiser to settle the question by ordering the body exhumed for medical tests to resolve the question once and for all.
"We have no evidence other than Ms. Lutton's claims to substantiate her allegations," said attorney Kirk Wolden, who represents Pierce Bros. "We are certainly anxious to get the matter resolved."
Reiser is scheduled to rule on the motion this morning. Since no one has opposed the request, the motion is expected to be granted.
Attorneys on both sides have already lined up experts to conduct dental exams and, if necessary, DNA tests on the remains. The tests would be done at the Ventura County medical examiner's office.
Lutton-Ward sued Pierce Bros. in December 1998, 11 months after her mother died of natural causes at her Thousand Oaks home. According to the lawsuit, Pierce Bros. took Judith Lutton's body to a mortuary in Thousand Oaks to be prepared for burial at Valley Oaks Memorial Park.
But the next day, Lutton-Ward was presented with a funeral contract by a Pierce Bros. mortician, charging $845 for cremation services, the lawsuit contends. She told the mortician that her mother was not to be cremated, but interred in a grave alongside her father, Raymond, who died in 1992.
The mortician assured Lutton-Ward "that all of her instructions would be carried out and that her mother would in fact be buried with her father," the lawsuit states.
At the time of her death, Judith Lutton had platinum white hair. But the lawsuit states the body in the casket had "dark roots, yellowish hair and black hair around the temples."
Also, the body had a different-shaped head and nose, and the clothes did not fit properly, the lawsuit states.
"When [Lutton-Ward] saw the woman in the casket presented by the defendant, it did not appear to be the body of her mother," the lawsuit says. The daughter questioned the mortuary but was assured the right body was in the casket, according to the suit.
The lawsuit states that the mortuary worker explained that death can alter a person's appearance and assured Lutton-Ward the body was her mother's.
Lutton-Ward had requested three locks of her mother's hair as a keepsake before the funeral. She later sent it to a lab for testing, and learned it was not her mother's, the lawsuit states.
Lutton-Ward is seeking $1 million in general damages, and $50,000 in future medical damages. The lawsuit contends that she has suffered mental and physical anguish, humiliation and loss of earnings.
Pierce Bros.' attorney said "it is undeniable that [Lutton-Ward] is haunted by a belief that a person other than the decedent is buried with her father." He argues that exhuming the body would resolve the dispute.