Eden Memorial Park faces second suit
Jewish cemetery Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills is facing a new, multimillion-dollar lawsuit related to allegations that it mishandled burial vaults, threw disrupted human remains into a pile on cemetery grounds and concealed potentially damaging information from its existing and potential customers.
A civil suit filed Feb. 19 in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of more than 50 people accuses Eden and its parent company, Service Corporation International (SCI), of inflicting emotional distress, negligence, interfering with dead bodies and violating the rights of families over their deceased relatives.
This new suit comes just a year after SCI agreed to pay about $80 million to settle a 25,000-person class action lawsuit alleging similar grievances. Many of the plaintiffs in this most recent lawsuit were not eligible to participate in the original class action suit, which only covered people affected between February 1985 and September 2009. Gary Praglin, an attorney with Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, the firm representing the plaintiffs, explained that this second suit includes plaintiffs affected both before and after that time frame, as well as people affected during those years who opted out of the class action.
Steven H. Gurnee, a lawyer for SCI, said he believes those plaintiffs whose complaints fall within the time period of the previous class action suit are subject to that settlement, and that their claims will be barred from this second suit. If that were to occur, only 13 plaintiffs would remain in the current case, he said.
The most recent suit claims that plots at Eden are so close together that groundskeepers have difficulty digging new graves without damaging the protective vaults of the graves on either side. The suit alleges that the cemetery purposely plotted graves 1.5 to 3 inches apart to maximize profits.
Although not commenting on the Eden case in particular, Russ Heimerich, a spokesperson for California’s Department of Consumer Affairs, told the Journal that some overlap is natural.
“You may find a vault or a coffin where you were digging that shouldn’t be there. A lot of times — in California, anyway — that is the result of seismic activity. When there are earthquakes, things tend to shift around a little bit. We’ve seen that at other places,” Heimerich said.
When this occurs, cemeteries often will move the shifted grave back to its intended location, he said, though Heimerich admitted he is not knowledgeable on current best business practices.
The suit goes further, however.
“Even more shocking, current and former groundskeepers at the cemetery have admitted that breaking burial vaults will often cause human remains to spill out of the broken vaults,” notes the complaint, citing sworn testimony from cemetery employees. “In such situations, the groundskeepers were instructed by their supervisors to throw away the bones and other remains in the cemetery dump located on the cemetery premises. According to the evidence, this has occurred on likely thousands of occasions.”
Gurnee denied that any such thing has occurred.
“There is no merit to these claims,” he told the Journal. “There has never been evidence discovered that people were thrown out in bone piles, and there has never been evidence that people were instructed to break vaults. Not one misplaced bone has been found. There were two former disgruntled employees, and we think they have been discredited.”
The suit further alleges that family members who purchased plots in the cemetery after the time SCI became aware of the negligent burial practices were not informed of the potential for harm.
“Defendants further instructed the groundskeepers and their supervisors not to tell anyone outside of the cemetery about these problems, and threatened retaliation if they did so,” asserts the complaint.
Jean Bergman, a resident of Los Angeles County and one of the plaintiffs, claims in the suit that she and her husband — he was buried in the cemetery in 2011 — were not informed of the risks prior to purchasing plots for themselves in 1990.
“[Bergman’s husband] is buried in a section of the cemetery where there have been a number of broken and damaged protective vaults as well as disturbances of graves, all of which have scarred and tainted the hallowed ground upon which the Plaintiff’s loved one has been buried since burial, and where the Plaintiff similarly intended to be buried,” the complaint states. “Ms. Bergman and her husband would never have purchased property, funeral services and burial services from Defendants had this information been disclosed.”
Eden has an active cemetery license and has never been subject to disciplinary action, Heimerich said. The cemetery received a citation in 2002 for failing to submit a legal document on time, but that was not operational and is not uncommon in the industry, he explained.