Eden cemetery trial set for May

A Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge has denied a motion that would have ended a class action lawsuit alleging that the owners of Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills desecrated human remains.

Judge Anthony J. Mohr ruled on Jan. 5 that the plaintiffs presented sufficient disputable facts to proceed with the trial to determine whether Service Corp. International (SCI), owners of Eden Memorial Park broke concrete coffin containers and then dumped the debris and human remains, and tried to squeeze graves into spaces that are too small.

SCI had filed for summary adjudication, claiming there was insufficient evidence to go to trial on six causes of action, including intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with the right to dispose of remains and interference with dead bodies. But the judge ruled that the plaintiffs, represented by Michael Avenatti of Eagan Avenatti, LLP, in Newport Beach, provided enough evidence to dispute SCI’s facts and to push the trial forward.

The trial is scheduled to begin May 2.

SCI spokesperson Lisa Marshall said judges commonly rule against claims for summary adjudication, so the ruling did not surprise her. She said SCI continues to dispute the allegations, as it has done since the case was filed in September 2009.

“We have different versions of what happened than the plaintiffs do,” she said. “We are continuing to prepare for our day in court.”

SCI maintains that while there were a few cases of irregularities in 2007, family members were immediately informed and the situation was handled properly and respectfully. It denies allegations of any broad wrongdoing and maintains that it follows protocol and properly handles human remains.

SCI purchased Eden in 1985. About 37,000 people are buried at the 72-acre facility at Sepulveda Boulevard and Rinaldi Street, which has been in operation for more than 55 years.

Some 1,300 families of people buried at Eden have contacted Avenatti about the suit.

“SCI’s claim that there is no evidence, which they’ve been making all along, is false. The judge has rejected that notion,” Avenatti said.

Steven Gurnee of Gurnee and Daniels LLP, near Sacramento, is representing Eden and he said he is prepared to refute all claims.

In November 2010, Mohr sanctioned SCI for tampering with evidence, after the plaintiffs showed that SCI had cleaned the cemetery dump in late 2009, soon after the judge ordered Eden to preserve all evidence related to the case.

SCI, based in Texas, is one of the country’s largest operators of funeral and cemetery services, with more than 1,400 funeral homes and nearly 400 cemeteries in 43 states.

In 2004, SCI agreed to pay $100 million to settle a criminal complaint filed against Menorah Gardens in West Palm Beach, Fla.