The trial in the $90 million lawsuit against Eden Memorial Park, a Jewish cemetery, began Feb.11 at the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse downtown.
The class action suit, filed in September 2009 by attorney Michael Avenatti of the Newport Beach law firm Eagan O’Malley & Avenatti, alleges Eden’s management ordered its workers to disturb existing graves in order to fit new coffins in tight spaces.
That disturbance allegedly included breaking concrete coffins and then dumping some of the human remains when bones fell out.
F. Charles Sands, whose family is buried at Eden, and 30 other people are named as plaintiffs, and 25,000 more people have joined the suit.
Located at Sepulveda Boulevard and Rinaldi Street in Mission Hills, Eden Memorial Park is owned and operated by SCI California, a subsidiary of Texas-based Service Corp. International, one of the country’s largest operators of cemeteries and funeral services. About 40,000 people are buried at Eden, which spans 72 acres.
The alleged incidents date back to 1985, when SCI acquired the cemetery. The plaintiffs contend that Eden knowingly broke as many as 1,500 buried concrete vaults between February 1985 and September 2009. Avenatti argued that the cemetery had a financial incentive to do so.
“This conduct was deliberate, and purposeful, and driven by a desire to make more money,” Avenatti told the jury during the plaintiffs’ opening statement on Tuesday.
With Judge Marc Marmaro presiding, Avenatti introduced evidence including testimonies, aerial photographs and video surveillance that the 43-year-old attorney argued will show that Eden’s management deliberately mishandled the coffins and corpses that families entrusted to its care.
The case has faced a long road to trial, including court sanctions, state investigations, tampering with evidence and a dispute over whether Jewish jurors would compromise the neutrality of the jury.
In November 2009, state investigators reported that they found no evidence that Eden mishandled graves. Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, said at the time that investigators would have found evidence if it existed. “The kinds of things that are being alleged are not easily hidden from view,” he said.
But one year later, in November 2010, Judge Anthony J. Mohr of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that the cemetery intentionally cleaned out the cemetery’s dump, where workers allegedly disposed of loose bones and broken concrete sections. In September 2009, the court ordered that all such evidence must be preserved.
For the last several years, both sides have collected extensive evidence, with the legal teams interviewing 110 people during deposition.
During jury selection in recent weeks, the defense has argued that, in order to ensure juror impartiality, it should be allowed to ask potential jurors whether they are Jewish. Marmaro declined that request, but did allow the defense to ask jurors for their religious affiliation and whether they are knowledgeable of Jewish burial law.
In the courtroom on Tuesday, Avenatti screened on a large television aerial photographs of the cemetery dump, located on the northern part of the cemetery, which was later cleaned out and developed in order to be used for additional burial plots.
“Additional dirt was brought in, placed over these remains, built up and plotted to be sold to other families,” the attorney said, before playing a video that alleges to show a groundskeeper placing a concrete block from a grave container into a tractor, which Avenatti said was collecting the debris for disposal.
He also showed the jury video depositions of former and current Eden groundskeepers acknowledging that they were ordered to break vaults if necessary, and to dispose of loose bones. He said that these people will testify on the stand during the trial.
One of those depositions showed Darryl Bowden, a former superintendent, sales manager and general manager at Eden, confirming that three employees told him that a skull had been thrown in the cemetery dump.
After speaking for more than two hours, with short breaks, Avenatti gave the floor to defense attorney, Steven Gurnee, of Gurnee Mason & Forestieri.
“It’s a beautiful cemetery; it’s a well-run cemetery,” Gurnee opened. “What you’ve just heard is false; it does not tell the story.”
Breaking into a discussion of burials according to Jewish tradition, the defense attorney said that one of the witnesses will be Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor at American Jewish University, who will clarify for the jury how burials are done according to Jewish law.
While Jewish tradition prefers for a body to come in relatively direct contact with the earth, Eden, like most cemeteries, Gurnee said, requires that all caskets be surrounded by a concrete vault, but allows for “holes [to be] drilled in the bottom to have direct access to the earth.”
Gurnee showed photographs of tree roots that appeared to have damaged a concrete vault, which would suggest that damage could have occurred that was not caused by deliberate mistreatment. Attempting to cast further doubt on the plaintiff’s assertions, Gurnee added that, when digging rocks out of the ground, those rocks can often move and cause damage to adjacent graves.
“It’s simply an accident,” Gurnee said. “These problems that are being complained of are nonexistent.”
Outside the courtroom after court adjourned, Avenatti told the Journal that the plaintiffs will seek at least $90 million in damages. During his opening statements he said that in the 24 years spanning the suit, the 25,000 people who joined the class action paid Eden more than $99 million.
Gurnee told the Journal that the plaintiffs’ allegations are false, that “there aren’t any bones being mishandled” and that he intends to show that former Eden groundskeepers who allege disturbance of graves are trying “to get back at their manager.”
On Feb. 13, following a one-day court holiday, the defense resumed and concluded its opening statement, arguing that evidence will show that if there were any incidents, they were isolated and were responded to appropriately by management.
Over the course of the coming weeks, Gurnee’s opening statement suggested, the defense will make the case that the plaintiffs are relying heavily on testimonies of disgruntled employees who want to hurt their former bosses.
“Despite 180 inspections by the plaintiffs and their experts,” Gurnee said, “Not a single bit of evidence of mishandling remains has been discovered.”
Speaking to the jury, Gurnee concluded: “You’ll have to decide whether there’s any evidence of any kind of wrongdoing, whether our client knew about it, whether our client was aware.”