Funeral Industry News

Court Upholds $2.3M Verdict Against Service Corp International

October 28, 2009

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Court Upholds $2.3M Verdict Against Service Corp International

image The 13th Court of Appeals this month upheld a judgment against a funeral company that moved the body of a San Benito man from its grave without the family?s permission.

While the appellate court upheld the judgment of $2.3 million in liability and actual damages to the wife and daughters of Marcos Guerra, it reduced the exemplary damages from $4 million to $1.5 million for the Guerra family?s mental anguish.

A Cameron County jury rendered the judgment against Service Corporation International and SCI Texas Funeral Services, Inc., doing business as Mont Meta Memorial Park in San Benito.

SCI attorney Charles C. Murray and the Guerras? attorney Richard G. Roth, both of McAllen, were not immediately available Monday for comment.

At issue was the double sale of a plot, burial of a body in the wrong space and the removal of a body without the family?s permission.

Guerra was buried in late 2001 in a space that SCI had sold to another family.

When then-General Manager Jaye Gaspard, who has since died, discovered the mistake, he notified the Guerras, asking if they would agree to have their father?s grave moved, the appellate court opinion states.

The Guerras did not agree.

According to the appellate court?s opinion, ?despite the family?s refusal, the Mont Meta grounds crew uncovered Mr. Guerra?s coffin and moved it? 12 to 18 inches into another space.

When the coffin was moved is unclear, the opinion states. Gaspard subsequently sent a letter to the Guerras informing them that the situation had been resolved, but the letter did not state that Guerra?s remains had been moved.

According to the opinion, the Guerras visited the grave in early 2002 and noticed that the dirt above the grave had been disturbed.

?The Guerras questioned Mont Meta about the freshly-dug earth, and Gaspard responded with a letter stating that Mont Meta was resodding the cemetery in preparation for the holidays and because of drought conditions,? the opinion states.

?Doubting the veracity of the letter, the Guerras performed their own probe of the grave site and discovered that the coffin had been moved,? the appellate court?s opinion notes.

?You know, we were always wondering where our father was. It was very hard to hear how this company stole our father from his grave and moved him. That was hard. And I pray none of you have to go through this,? Guerra?s daughter Gracie Little testified during the civil trial held in the 404th District Court, the opinion noted.

The jury found SCI liable to the Guerras for trespass, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress for disturbing Guerra?s grave.

SCI appealed, arguing insufficient evidence to establish liability, excessive actual damages, the award of exemplary damages was excessive and tainted by irrelevant and prejudicial evidence.

The appeal also argued that the charge to the jury authorizing exemplary damages in excess of the cap was in error, the verdict was influenced by improper argument to the jury, and that the errors should result in a new trial.

The appellate court overturned all but one argument, finding that the state court?s charge to the jury authorizing exemplary damages in excess of the cap had been in error and thus, the adjustment.

SCI could request a rehearing before the appellate court.