State of California Sues SCI’s Neptune Society and Trident Society
News of the State of California’s lawsuit against the Neptune Society broke late on Monday, December 2 in a flurry of headlines. Using words like “bilked,” “short-changed,” and “swindled,” the press provided a scarce few details about the suit, which was filed earlier in the day.
According to these reports, California’s State Attorney General Xavier Becerra and three San Francisco Bay district attorneys accused the Neptune Society and its subsidiary Trident Society of:
- Failing to hold in a fully-refundable trust more than $100 million customers paid for Neptune cremation plans (pre-need trusts have been required by law in California since 1965 to ensure the availability of full refunds)
- Failing to issue full refunds to customers who cancelled contracts
- The potential inability to issue refunds to thousands of other prepaid customers who might cancel their plans
- Falsely claiming to use its own crematoriums when it actually contracted with others
- Illegally accelerating payments when customers died
- Steered 99% of customers to its Standard Neptune Plan which included both cremation services and related products, but then illegally kept about half that amount which was earmarked for the products
- Inflating the assigned value of above-mentioned products, including a fiberboard urn, a fiberboard memento chest, and thank-you cards (which, with cremation services, typically runs about $2,500)
The suit asks for civil fines and court orders requiring Neptune and Trident to put the full amount of money collected in the past into pre-need trusts and to stop the allegedly deceptive practices.
The Neptune Society and Trident Society are owned by Houston-based behemoth Service Corporation International (SCI). As of this writing, SCI had not commented, and a representative of Neptune had issued only a “no comment” statement in response to the suit.
The unfair business practices suit was filed in Alameda County, California Superior Court on behalf of the people of California by Becerra and the district attorneys of Alameda, Marin, and San Francisco counties. In a statement on Monday, Attorney General Becerra commented that the Neptune Society is “swindling customers who were simply trying to look out for their families and prepare for one of life’s most difficult moments.”
The suit states the Neptune Society of Northern California alone sold more than 8,500 such plans during a two-year window from 2014 to 2016. It also says that the company made some changes in pricing last year after being notified of faulty business practices. One such change was eliminating its processing and membership fees. However, the suit says, the company increased the price for other services, allegedly to compensate for the missing fees.
Neptune’s controversial history
Billing itself as “America’s Most Trusted Cremation Services®,” Neptune Society was established in 1973 in Plantation, Florida and incorporated in 1985. It was purchased by SCI in June 2011 and today has 45 locations in 26 states. Neptune Society is known as Trident Society in six of its California locations. Neptune also owns the Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco, California and the Neptune Memorial Reef near Key Biscayne, Florida.
As September 30, 2019, SCI owned and operated 1,477 funeral service locations and cemeteries in 44 states, eight Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Neither entity has a perfect track record with consumer watchdog groups, but the Neptune Society has been especially riddled with lawsuits in the last few 30 or so years:
- 1988: The Neptune society offered to pay $2.675 million in damages to Southern California residents for illegally burning and in some cases mishandling remains
- 1988: The Neptune Society paid $8.2 million to 1,000 relatives of people whose cremated remains were “unceremoniously dumped” in the Sierra Nevada foothills
- 1994: The widow of a former Burbank, California mayor was awarded $1 million in a lawsuit against Neptune for mishandling her husband’s remains.
- 2008: The Neptune Society of Colorado was accused by the Colorado Division of Insurance with underfunding its required trust account
- 2018: A settlement was reached in a class action suit against SCI Direct d/b/a Neptune Society for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by making prerecorded calls to consumers on the “Do Not Call” list or without prior consent
Consumer opinions of Neptune Society
It’s not only the formal lawsuits that are disturbing. Like it or not, we live in a world that looks to social media and online reviews for recommendations and words of warning for every type of product and service. The death care industry is certainly not immune.
Of the Neptune Society’s 84 Yelp reviews, 45 are “1-star,” and the average is 2.5 stars. The reviews site a variety of issues from the lack of professionalism of the staff to delays in cremation to terrible communication practices, and of course, the “hard sell” of services. Neptune fared better on the Consumer Affairs site, with 128 ratings and an average of 4 stars in the past year. It also appears that The Neptune Society responded to each of the reviews on both sites.
However, the Better Business Bureau has logged 53 complaints against the Neptune Society in the past three years. Two concerned billing, 16 were about advertising or sales, and 35 cited problems with products or services. In fact, one of the most recent complaints (since resolved) concerned the timely topic of not receiving a full refund.
Connecting Directors will keep you updated on the status of the Neptune Society lawsuit.