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A trial that began seven years ago against a California cemetery has wrapped up with a $5 million plaintiffs’ verdict that took two days to read aloud in the courtroom. The defendant, Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, Calif., was accused of defrauding families of the deceased by staging phony gravesites and then burying the dead in the roadway of the cemetery, in mass graves that held up to six bodies and were marked with a number on the curb. Barnes v. Angeles Abbey, No. TC-008819 (Sup. Ct. L.A.). Unlike typical class actions where the members divide one lump-sum award equally, the court felt a more equitable remedy would be achieved if each plaintiff in the case received an individual damages award, said Santa Ana, Calif., solo practitioner Amador Corona, the plaintiffs’ counsel. With that in mind, the court certified the plaintiffs as a class during the liability phase, but allowed them to proceed to the damages phase as individuals. Corona put each member of the class of 250 plaintiffs on the stand to testify as to the emotional abuse they had suffered. The jury took 30 days to deliberate and personalized its award to each plaintiff, from $1,000 to $125,000, for the total of $5 million. Angeles Abbey’s attorney, Scott Cox, of Pasadena, Calif.’s Friedenthal, Cox & Herskovitz, did not return phone calls. The case is one of several that are turning a spotlight on the murky area of death care industry litigation. In March, the Georgia sheriff’s department responded to a phone call from a woman who had been walking in a remote Georgia area, when she noticed that her dog had picked up a human hand. Investigators discovered 339 bodies that had been strewn around the vicinity of the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga. The news triggered scores of lawsuits against Tri-State and associated funeral homes. SUITS ON THE RISE? The local attorney for the plaintiffs suing Tri-State, Robert Darroch of Atlanta’s Mabry & McClelland, said he has seen an increase in death care industry litigation in the past 10 years, and estimates that his firm handles 25 to 30 such cases a year, most of them on the defense side. He attributes the surge to the trend toward nationalizing the funeral business. “Ten to 20 years ago, most funeral homes were owned locally, and community standards and state regulations were all you needed,” Darroch said. “Most have been bought up and put under big national corporations. And the only way to regulate big business is with federal regulation.” The Tri-State incident prompted calls for federal regulation, which was vehemently opposed by the International Cemetery and Funeral Association (ICFA) in its April testimony before the U.S. Senate. The ICFA is in favor of more uniform state statutes. Corona agrees that the problems in California can be resolved at the state level. The state used to have more proactive investigations, he said, until the state cemetery board was swallowed up by the Department of Consumer Affairs. In Re Tri-State Crematory, MDL 1467, includes three federal actions that have been consolidated in a U.S. district court in Rome, Ga. A total of 113 lawsuits were filed against funeral homes in Hamilton County Circuit Court in Chattanooga, Tenn., because 75 percent of the bodies recovered were from Tennessee. Several suits are also pending in counties throughout Georgia. The defendant funeral homes are accused of sending bodies to Tri-State without checking its license or facilities. McCracken Poston, a solo practitioner in Ringgold, Ga., is defending the operator of Tri-State, Ray Brent Marsh. Poston says the funeral homes are the deep-pocket defendants. “There are not a lot of guidelines in Georgia,” he said, “but the industry will be changed by this case, if it hasn’t already.” Barry Davidson, of the Miami office of Hunton & Williams, defends Service Corp. International — the largest burial outfit — and said state courts should not grant individual damages awards as in Barnes. “It is converse to the whole theory of a class,” said Davidson. “The reason you have a class is for efficiency and to find a remedy that applies to the entire class.”

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