Thursday, February 27, 2014
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Los Angeles cemetery has agreed to an estimated $80.5 million settlement of a lawsuit that claimed it dumped human remains from hundreds of graves.
Owners of Eden Memorial Park agreed to the deal about a week ago in the midst of a jury trial, and a Superior Court judge granted preliminary approval Thursday, said Michael Avenatti, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the class-action suit.
Final approval is expected in May, he said.
The cemetery's owner, Houston-based Service Corporation International, denied wrongdoing.
"While we certainly understand that our clients wanted to avoid prolonged litigation, I am disappointed that we did not try this case to a conclusion," said Steve Gurnee, the company's lead attorney in the case. "I am confident that the facts would have established that Eden Memorial Park did not do anything wrong and would have been fully vindicated."
The company agreed to settle a similar lawsuit in Florida in 2003 for $100 million.
The Eden lawsuit, filed in 2009, claimed that for about 25 years, management at the Jewish cemetery ordered employees to make new graves fit "even if it required breaking outer burial containers in adjacent graves," according to a settlement notice.
"The groundskeepers testified that on hundreds of occasions, they broke into adjacent vaults and discarded remains," which included those of a baby, Avenatti said.
Pieces of caskets and remains were buried in the cemetery's dump section, which was buried by later cemetery development, and they won't be disinterred, Avenatti said.
After consulting with rabbis, "we collectively decided that they were better left where they were," he said.
The settlement involves about 25,000 families. It sets up a $35.25 million reimbursement fund for people who want to remove their loved ones from the cemetery or bought services such as prepaid gravesites.
The company also agreed to pay $250,000 to notify people of the settlement, and it will make changes to correct problems and prevent future misconduct that could cost it an additional $45 million, including loss of future business.
Service Corporation International is the world's largest funeral services company.
"We are very pleased to put this litigation behind us," said company spokeswoman Lisa Marshall. "While we do not believe the allegations represent the standard of care and service our professionals provide, it is in the best interest of our customer families, our shareholders and our associates that we move forward and focus on the work we do every day, serving families with respect, compassion and transparency."
In 2003, the company agreed to a $100 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit involving about 700 families. The suit alleged that Menorah Gardens cemeteries in Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida buried people in the wrong places, broke open vaults to squeeze in other remains and, in some instances, tossed bones into the woods.
The company also settled a lawsuit by the state of Florida for $14 million.