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Thursday’s announcement of an $80 million settlement between the operator of a northwest Georgia crematory and the families of the dead whose bodies were discarded there isn’t all that it seems. An attorney who helped hammer out the deal calls it “Monopoly money,” explaining that the settlement is unlikely to be paid without further litigation. But lawyers for the families who sent loved ones to the crematory hope to collect the entire $80 million from the Georgia Farm Bureau Insurance Co., which provided homeowner’s insurance for the Marsh family that operated Tri-State Crematory in Noble. A Farm Bureau attorney said plaintiffs will find it difficult to collect that settlement from his client. “It has always been our position that the homeowner’s policy did not insure the crematory business, much less the intentional acts of not cremating bodies,” said Farm Bureau attorney Charles A. Wiley Jr., a partner at Fain, Major, Wiley & Brennan in Atlanta. Wiley added that the Farm Bureau didn’t participate in the settlement negotiations. T. Ray Brent Marsh, the operator of the crematory, and his family are considered judgment-proof. Marsh has a court-appointed criminal defense attorney because a judge determined that he is indigent, and the family’s primary asset is the Tri-State property, which would be protected in bankruptcy proceedings that could be triggered by a high-dollar judgment. Thursday’s settlement — the second announced this year in a grim class action suit in federal court in Rome, Ga. — stems from the 2002 discovery of 339 uncremated corpses that had been scattered across the 18-acre property of the Tri-State Crematory. The discovery of the deteriorated and desecrated corpses, all of which had been brought to Tri-State for cremation, led to Marsh’s indictment on 787 criminal charges related to mishandling corpses, and more than 100 civil claims in three states against Marsh, his parents, the crematory and the funeral homes that shipped bodies to Tri-State. FIRST SETTLEMENT FELL APART Attorneys representing an estimated class of 1,700 next-of-kin announced the $80 million settlement by Marsh and his father’s estate as the second civil trial in the case got under way. In re Tri-State Crematory Litigation, No. 1467 (N.D. Ga. Aug. 25, 2004). In March, the Farm Bureau agreed to pay $3.5 million into a settlement, and 56 funeral homes that delivered bodies to the crematory said they would contribute $36.5 million. That agreement came just as a trial was getting started in the families’ suit against Marsh, his father’s estate and the funeral homes. However, that settlement fell apart this summer after attorneys for the families were unable to secure from every class member a global agreement absolving the Farm Bureau of further liability in the case, according to defense lawyers. Robert M. Darroch, a member of the plaintiff families’ legal team and a partner at Mabry & McClelland in Atlanta, blamed the Farm Bureau for the collapse of the first settlement. He said the Farm Bureau “got cold feet and backed out.” Darroch also denied that the lack of a global agreement sabotaged the first settlement agreement. “Class actions take time to settle,” Darroch said. “The Georgia Farm Bureau doesn’t have a sophisticated enough understanding of class actions to realize that.” Marsh’s legal team has absolved him and his family of liability in the new settlement agreement. As part of the settlement, the families’ attorneys have agreed not to attempt to lay claim to any of the Marshes’ assets or seek a judgment against them to force payment of the $80 million. Instead, the families’ attorneys have agreed to seek the $80 million solely from the Farm Bureau. Plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed that “they will have to try to litigate only against insurance funds,” explained McCracken K. Poston, who is representing Marsh in both civil and criminal proceedings. But Poston acknowledged that it will be difficult for the plaintiffs to collect the $80 million settlement from the Farm Bureau. “At this point, it’s just Monopoly money because there is no insurance money,” he said. In addition to the insurance company’s claim that the homeowner’s policy didn’t cover the crematory business, plaintiffs must contend with a legal agreement between the Marsh family and the Farm Bureau that might undermine attempts to collect from the insurer. In June, after plaintiffs attorneys announced that the first settlement negotiations had fallen through, the Marshes entered into a settlement with the Farm Bureau in which they agreed that their homeowner’s policy did not include the crematory operations, Poston said. That settlement in Walker County Superior Court ended a declaratory judgment action that the Marshes originally had filed against the Farm Bureau to force the insurance company to defend them in the civil litigation and pay any resulting judgments. In return, the Farm Bureau agreed to continue defending Marsh and the estate in the civil litigation and to establish two trusts — one $175,000 trust for Marsh’s mother, Clara Marsh, and a second $225,000 trust for her grandchildren, according to court records. The families of the Tri-State dead are attempting to intervene in the Walker County case and have asked that the declaratory judgment settlement be set aside, said Darroch. SEEKING EMOTIONAL CLOSURE Plaintiffs attorney Robert H. Smalley III declined to discuss the plaintiffs’ chances of collecting the $80 million. Instead, he noted that class members will obtain some emotional closure under the settlement, which requires the Marshes to dismantle the crematory and return the property to its natural state. “I’m trying to steer clear of the Farm Bureau case,” he said. “But,” he added, “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the value to the class members of the property portion of the settlement, whereby the crematory buildings and the areas where human remains were found will be dismantled and the properties will be returned to a natural state. … That was also very, very important to the class members to help restore some dignity to that property.” Chattanooga, Tenn., attorney Stuart James, co-counsel with Cartersville, Ga., attorney Frank E. Jenkins III for Marsh in the federal litigation, called the new settlement “great for the Marshes” because “they are not going to personally pay nor will they be personally liable for any of that $80 million. The plaintiffs cannot levy property, levy checking accounts or collect anything from the Marsh family. The purpose of the judgment, I think, is to try to see if [the plaintiffs] can challenge coverage issues under the Farm Bureau policy.”

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