A massive four-year, 25,000-person class action lawsuit against Eden Memorial Park came to an end on Feb. 27, when the Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills agreed to a settlement worth an estimated $80.5 million, according to documents filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The legal battle, which began in September 2009, centered around allegations that 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.
The tentative settlement, which won’t be finalized until mid-May, calls for Eden’s parent company, Service Corp. International (SCI), to distribute $35.25 million into a global settlement fund to pay plaintiffs and their attorneys, $250,000 for administrative costs, and fully refund class action members who wish to disinter family members buried at the cemetery. Court documents filed Feb. 27 indicate that the value of the non-cash services Eden will be ordered to provide is $45 million.
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 SCI, 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.
On Feb. 11, the case went to trial at the downtown Los Angeles Superior Courthouse, but not after years of court sanctions, state investigations, evidence tampering 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. 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. But only three witnesses had been brought to the stand in the past two weeks, according to defense attorney Steve Gurnee, of Gurnee Mason & Forestiere.
“This trial could have lasted until September,” he said.
He added that of the $35.25 million in cash that SCI will owe if the agreement is finalized, all but $10 million will be covered by insurance.
And while Gurnee said that he is confident his team would have won the case had the trial continued, he said Eden decided to settle for economic reasons.
“The plaintiffs have been making demands in this case for ages that have been stratospheric,” he said. “The company wants to move on.”
Although the amount that each family will receive won’t be known until this summer — the claim deadline is June 5 — plaintiff’s attorney Michael Avenatti of the Newport Beach law firm Eagan Avenatti, characterized the agreement as “no coupon settlement.”
“Families are going to receive significant [money] in this case,” he said.