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.