X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
When Kathi L. Kelly walked into Wann Funeral Home in Chattanooga, Tenn., to arrange for the cremations of her mother and father, she noticed, despite her grief, the opulence of her surroundings. It was “an enormous place,” she told a federal jury in Rome, Ga., on Tuesday. The funeral home had high ceilings, plush carpet, brocaded furniture and a French provincial motif. Even the basement, where the caskets were kept, was “very grand,” she said. What Kelly didn’t know was that Wann shipped corpses for cremation to a junk-strewn, debris-laden crematory near Noble, Ga., that was as dilapidated as Wann was elegant. The bodies often were left to rot, other witnesses told the jury. In the wake of Tuesday’s grim testimony, the three remaining funeral homes in the class action settled. Forty-four of 56 funeral homes that were named in the suit settled before a jury was picked in the case. The 12 remaining funeral homes have settled since the trial began last week. Wann, one of the last two funeral home defendants, settled Wednesday morning. Wann paid $200 to cremate a body at Tri-State Crematory after charging families $1,325 for the service. In a videotaped deposition played for the jury, Wann’s funeral director said he shipped bodies to Tri-State for several decades without ever visiting the facility. Wann has shipped 80 bodies to Tri-State since 1997, the period when bodies have been shown to have been mishandled. The deposition video was preceded by the state medical examiner’s testimony, in which he said that anyone who visited the facility over the past few years would have noticed human bones in the yard and decomposing body fluids on the floor of the main building. Just two defendants remain, T. Ray Brent Marsh, the indigent operator of the crematory, and the estate of Marsh’s father, who died last year. The Georgia Farm Bureau had insured the elder Marsh’s residence and property under a standard homeowner’s policy. The insurance company is not a defendant in this case, but is providing the estate a lawyer. In a separate action, the Georgia Farm Bureau is contesting any liability for Marsh’s actions. U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy announced the funeral home settlements Wednesday morning and adjourned court. The case will resume today. Neither lead counsel for the plaintiff, Robert H. Smalley III, nor lead counsel for the funeral homes, J. Anderson Davis, would discuss the terms of the settlements. “Each individual funeral home negotiated their own resolution, depending on their circumstances,” said Davis. Court records show that Wann earlier this year offered a settlement that was far below what some other defendants offered. Wann offered $10,000 to the next of kin of each recovered corpse, $5,000 for each body that was sent to Tri-State between 1997 and 2002 but never recovered on site, and $1,000 for each body cremated at Tri-State from 1988 to 1997. Some other funeral homes, a number of them owned by national chains, agreed to pay $100,000 to the next of kin of each recovered corpse, $50,000 to family members whose relatives’ bodies were sent to Tri-State from 1997 on but were never found on the property, and $10,000 for each body purportedly cremated at Tri-State between 1988 and 1997, according to court records. Defense attorney Davis discounted any notion that the grim testimony Tuesday pressured his clients to settle. “The things that happened at Tri-State were in the woods and behind locked doors,” he said. But plaintiffs’ attorney Smalley felt the case was going his way. “Obviously, we feel very good about the proof we were putting in on the case,” he said. It’s been the plaintiffs’ view that the funeral homes breached their contractual obligation with families to ensure that the cremations were carried out properly. FUNERAL HOME OFFERED NO HELP Kelly, who told the court that her parents were sent for cremation at Tri-State in 1997 and 1998, said she didn’t learn until nearly five years after her mother’s death the real story — how her parents’ bodies were transported from a setting that bespoke of dignity for the dead to a location where corpses were stacked in filthy, fly-blown sheds or dumped in mass graves. Kelly learned that the ashes she thought were her mother’s — and buried with her brother’s body and her father’s ashes — were not. In November 2002, 10 months after more than 330 uncremated corpses were discovered on the grounds of Tri-State, agents with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation tracked Kelly down at her New Hampshire home. They told her that her mother’s corpse had been recovered from the crematory grounds. The body of Kelly’s father was not found among the identified corpses at Tri-State. More than 100 sets of remains found there in February 2002 haven’t been identified. Her mother’s ashes now sit in an urn on her mantel. Kelly told the jury she has no idea whose ashes are in the urn she buried with her brother. Nor is she certain that the ashes in her father’s urn are really his. After her mother’s body was recovered, Kelly said that Wann — which had charged her family about $2,500 for each of her parents’ funerals — never attempted to contact her, never offered help in cremating her mother’s badly deteriorated corpse and never offered to reimburse her for her parents’ funerals. CREMATORY WASN’T LICENSED Kelly’s testimony brought to light little-known aspects of the business of death. Wann shipped bodies to Tri-State for two decades without inspecting the crematory or the grounds, funeral director John T. Hargas said in a videotaped deposition. “I have never been down there personally,” Hargas acknowledged. The funeral director also said that when he began doing business with Tommy Ray Marsh, Brent Marsh’s father, shortly after the crematory opened in 1982, he did so without knowing whether Tri-State operated with a valid business license. According to state records, Tri-State was administratively dissolved as a corporation in 1997. So Hargas never saw the horrific conditions that Dr. Kris L. Sperry, the chief medical examiner for the GBI, catalogued at Tri-State and described for the jury earlier this week. Attorneys for the funeral homes suggested this week that funeral directors who visited the heavily wooded crematory property would not necessarily have noticed the remains scattered behind the crematory or nearby sheds. But Sperry testified, “If somebody were to get out and be walking in the area of the crematory … and it was daylight, the bones would be obvious.” The pathologist said that anyone inspecting the interior of the building that housed the oven could not have failed to notice that the floor was sticky with decomposing body fluids that apparently had been allowed to drain from the unrefrigerated corpses before they were placed in the oven. “The gross, unclean nature of that was repugnant,” Sperry said.

This content has been archived. It is available exclusively through our partner LexisNexis®.

To view this content, please continue to Lexis Advance®.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber? Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® is now the exclusive third party online distributor of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® customers will be able to access and use ALM's content by subscribing to the LexisNexis® services via Lexis Advance®. This includes content from the National Law Journal®, The American Lawyer®, Law Technology News®, The New York Law Journal® and Corporate Counsel®, as well as ALM's other newspapers, directories, legal treatises, published and unpublished court opinions, and other sources of legal information.

ALM's content plays a significant role in your work and research, and now through this alliance LexisNexis® will bring you access to an even more comprehensive collection of legal content.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.