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A Houston jury declined to award damages to a Hindu widower who sought a total of $24 million from his deceased wife’s cousin and an insurer for allegedly interfering with his right to cremate his wife’s body within the time that he contends is required by their religion. After a weeklong trial in the 281st District Court, the jury found that defendants Harina Kapoor, the deceased woman’s cousin, and Farmers New Life World Insurance Co. did not unlawfully interfere with Parvin Gidvani’s rights with regard to his wife’s interment and that Kapoor did not intentionally inflict severe emotional distress on Gidvani. “This has got to be the only case like this to ever be filed [in Texas],” says Ileana Blanco, a partner in Bracewell & Patterson in Houston and the lead attorney for Farmers in Gidvani v. Farmers New World Life Insurance Co., et al. Blanco says Gidvani is based on old Texas case law. In 1936, the 9th Court of Appeals in Beaumont held in Love v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. that “any interference with the right of possession of the body of a deceased by mutilation or otherwise disturbing the body without the consent of the next of kin is an actionable wrong for which a claim for damages may be maintained.” The Texas Supreme Court affirmed Love in 1938. “Drafting a jury charge when the last time a case was heard was more than 60 years ago was challenging,” says Bracewell & Patterson associate Karen Lister Conticello, who assisted Blanco along with associate Deana Freeman. “There is no pattern jury charge on unlawful interference with the right to interment,” Conticello says. Gidvani, filed in October 1998, added a new wrinkle to the cause of action established in Love. The alleged interference in Gidvani had to do with a religious tradition, Blanco says. In his petition, Gidvani alleged that he suffered “emotional distress and mental anguish and religious and spiritual losses” because the funeral and cremation of his wife, Nita, was not performed by the 12th day following her death, as called for by the Hindu faith. Gidvani asserted a claim for damages against Farmers and Kapoor for allegedly interfering with Gidvani’s right to cremate his wife’s body. Gidvani also asserted a claim for damages against Kapoor for alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress. Raymond Davis, an attorney representing Gidvani, says it’s a tradition of Hinduism to have a special prayer — or pooja — said on the morning of the 13th day after a death. “The pooja is meant to help the soul separate from the body,” says Davis, a partner in Houston’s Davis & Thomas. Davis says the $24 million that Gidvani sought in damages was “symbolic.” He says the husband requested $12 million for the 12 days in which the cremation should have been done under the tenets of Hinduism and multiplied that number by the two defendants. The allegations in Gidvani stem from events that occurred more than six years ago after a tragedy during the Gidvanis’ honeymoon. According to the husband’s petition, his 24-year-old wife drowned while swimming during the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 1997, the day after the newlyweds arrived in Acapulco, Mexico, for a honeymoon vacation. In his petition, Gidvani wrote that he was asleep when his wife went for the swim. Davis says the Gidvanis married on Nov. 1, 1996, after meeting through an arranged introduction in India. Farmers’ records show that Gidvani applied for a $250,000 life insurance policy — including $100,000 for accidental death — on his wife on Nov. 26, 1996, and Farmers issued the insurance Feb. 6, 1997. Gidvani subsequently submitted his claim for the insurance proceeds. Gidvani alleged in his petition that because of the defendants’ actions, the funeral services and cremation of his wife’s body did not occur until March 8, 1997. Mexican authorities’ investigation of the death was prolonged by several days by the “malicious intermeddling” of Kapoor and others in his deceased wife’s family in an attempt to “pin responsibility” for his wife’s death on him, Gidvani alleged in the petition. The cousin’s interference continued after Gidvani returned to Houston with his wife’s remains, he alleged in his petition. In a March 2, 1997, letter to Southpark Funeral Home in Pearland, Texas, Kapoor requested that the cremation of her cousin’s body be delayed until after a second autopsy could be performed. Alleging in the letter that her cousin had “always been scared of the dark,” Kapoor wrote, “I cannot imagine her wanting to swim in the middle of the night in a pool full of cool water.” James Boanerges, Kapoor’s attorney and a shareholder in Houston’s Lueders & Boanerges, did not return two telephone calls seeking comment before press time. Kapoor denied all of Gidvani’s allegations in her answer to his petition and asserted that she was “acting in good faith.” Davis, Gidvani’s attorney, says that if his client had wanted to hide any alleged wrongdoing he could have had the body cremated in Mexico. “The only reason he came back with his wife’s remains was to have Hindu rituals with the rest of the family,” Davis says. In his petition, Gidvani alleged that Southpark accepted the unsubstantiated allegations of a person unknown to the funeral home and failed to perform the funeral and cremation as it had agreed. Gidvani further alleged in the petition that Kapoor contacted Farmers about her concerns and that the insurer asked Gidvani to allow a second autopsy to be performed or his insurance claim would be jeopardized. According to the petition, Mexican authorities performed an autopsy and ruled that the wife’s death was the result of asphyxiation by accidental drowning. SECOND AUTOPSY ORDERED But as alleged in Gidvani’s petition, Farmers had an “ace” up its sleeve — Jerome Aldrich, then-district attorney in Brazoria County. Citing records of the Texas Department of Insurance, Gidvani alleged that DA Aldrich, who requested the second autopsy, had been an agent for Farmers since 1993. Aldrich, now a solo in private practice in Lake Jackson, Texas, says he wasn’t a Farmers agent at the time he requested the second autopsy. Although he entered a training program to become a Farmers agent in 1993, Aldrich says he quickly realized “that wasn’t for me.” Farmers’ records show that Aldrich was licensed and appointed to be a Farmers life insurance agent on Dec. 7, 1993, and that the license was cancelled three weeks later on Dec. 28, 1993. Aldrich says he did not know that Farmers had the life insurance policy on Gidvani’s wife when an assistant district attorney contacted Aldrich by paging him while he was at church on March 2, 1997. Aldrich says that the ADA told him that a dispute had erupted over the woman’s body. Bill Todd, a former Brazoria County justice of the peace, says he ordered the second autopsy on the wife’s body after receiving a request from Aldrich to do so. Southpark contends that it had no choice but to delay the cremation after Todd issued the order. “While Southpark does its best to accommodate the wishes of all of its clients and the families it assists, it cannot do so in violation of a court order,” says Cole Ramey, a partner in Dallas’ Crouch & Inabnett and one of the attorneys who represented the funeral home. Judge Jane Bland, presiding judge of the 281st District Court, granted summary judgments to Farmers, Southpark and Aldrich. Kapoor did not seek summary judgment. In November 2000, Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment for Southpark but reversed the summary judgment for Farmers because of the material fact issues raised by the summary judgment evidence. “It is uncontroverted that Farmers was involved early-on in attempts to have a second autopsy performed. A reasonable inference from the evidence is that Farmers enlisted the help of Nita’s closest U.S. relative to accomplish its goal; that the relative was successful; and that, as a direct result, the cremation of Nita’s remains was delayed past the 12-day deadline observed by the Hindu religion,” then-Justice Eric Andell wrote for the court. Margaret Mirabal, also a justice on the 1st Court at the time, and former 1st Court Justice Lee Duggan Jr., sitting by assignment, joined in the opinion. In February 2003, a 1st Court panel also affirmed the summary judgment for Aldrich, concluding that he acted in good faith when he requested the second autopsy on the wife’s body. Mirabal, sitting by assignment, wrote the opinion in which Justices Adele Hedges and Terry Jennings joined. Blanco says the second autopsy on Nita Gidvani’s body proved to be inconclusive. Dr. W.E. Korndorffer, chief medical examiner for Galveston County, advised Aldrich in a March 11, 1997, letter that the findings were “consistent with drowning, drug overdose, asphyxiation from any cause (smothering, etc.).” Farmers settled the insurance claim on May 1, 1997, paying Gidvani $251,387, including a $22.62 premium refund, according to a letter sent to Gidvani by Lois Dobbins, senior life claims examiner for the insurance company. Davis says no decision has been made regarding an appeal. But he notes: “We believe that having had his day in court and gotten a jury verdict, Mr. Gidvani feels he has closure on it.”

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