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.

Judge sanctions Eden Memorial owner over evidence tampering

A Los Angeles judge has sanctioned Service Corporation International (SCI), owner of Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, after finding that the cemetery intentionally tampered with and destroyed evidence related to a class action lawsuit alleging that Eden mishandled human remains.

Judge Anthony J. Mohr of the Los Angeles Superior Court ordered that the plaintiff’s attorney will be allowed to present evidence to the jury showing that SCI willfully tampered with evidence, and the judge will inform jurors that they may reasonably conclude that the destroyed evidence could have been damaging.

The judge declined the plaintiff’s motion to automatically find SCI liable.

A spokeswoman for SCI said the company disagrees with the judge’s order and its attorneys are exploring options. SCI, based in Texas, is one of the country’s largest operators of funeral and cemetery services, with 1,500 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries.

About 40,000 people are buried in Eden, which owns 72 acres, a good portion of it still unused. The cemetery, at Sepulveda Boulevard and Rinaldi Street, has been in operation for more than 50 years. SCI purchased Eden in 1985.

The case is now in the discovery phase and is set to go to trial at the end of 2011.

Attorney Michael Avenatti of Eagan O’Malley & Avenatti in Newport Beach filed a class action suit against SCI in September 2009, alleging that the cemetery broke concrete vaults to squeeze more graves into small spaces, and that when bones fell out of the broken vaults, groundskeepers were instructed to discard the remains in the cemetery dump.

The suit also alleges that Eden secretly buried bodies in the wrong plots and misplaced or lost remains.

F. Charles Sands, whose family is buried at Eden, and 30 other people are the named plaintiffs on the suit, and more than 1,100 families have retained Avenatti’s services.

SCI has maintained 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.

In November 2009, California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau reported that it found no proof that Eden was willfully engaged in grave desecration. Avenatti said the report, based on old audits and no new visits, does indeed hold proof of wrongdoing.

That report is but one piece of evidence in the lawsuit.

In September 2009, the court ordered the cemetery to preserve all evidence related to the case and provide documentation of any new damage to burial vaults or graves.

But soon after, SCI market director James Biby ordered Eden to clean up the cemetery dump, a fact that SCI doesn’t deny, according to the judge’s order.

Eden general manager Anthony Lampe then told the grounds superintendent “to get ‘the evidence,’ [his word], retrieve it, put in a dumpster, and have it taken off the property,” according to testimony cited by the judge in his order.

SCI claimed the dump clean-up was simply an effort to make the grounds look better. The plaintiff’s investigators recorded a video of the two-day cleanup of the dump, which had never been cleaned in its 20 years of use, according to the judge’s order. The judge said the video showed workers hand-picking concrete pieces out of the area.

In another instance, according to the judge’s order, the cemetery did not inform the court when, in March 2010, it found pieces of a broken vault in a section that used to be the cemetery dump. Rather, groundskeepers covered over that evidence with a new grave. SCI lawyers maintained that because the vault was not broken on that day, it did not fall under the judge’s order.

The judge’s order allowing attorneys to prove to jurors that SCI intentionally tampered with evidence could strengthen the plaintiffs’ case even without physical evidence. The plaintiffs’ case relies heavily on testimony from current and former employees.

The court also gave the plaintiffs extra time in examination and cross-examination, as well as in opening and closing arguments. The sanction bars the defendant from arguing during the trial that the plaintiffs lack physical evidence to support their allegations.