By BILL HETHERMAN
City News Service
A judge today gave preliminary approval to an eight-figure settlement of a lawsuit brought by nine people who alleged mass disturbances of graves at a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Buckley's action puts an end to a trial involving Eden Memorial Park Cemetery that started with opening statements Feb. 11 and was estimated to last four months. Jurors were told Monday that there would be a week-long break in the case, but were not given a reason as to why.
The 67-acre cemetery opened in 1954 and its assets were acquired in 1995 by SCI California Funeral Services Inc., co-defendants in the lawsuit with Service International Corp. Comedians Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce are among those buried there.
Defense attorney Steven Gurnee said the accord calls for his clients to pay $35.2 million with no admission of liability. He said the resolution of the case came because the plaintiffs' lawyers reached "a range that made economic sense."
However, lawyer Michael Avenatti, who represents the nine named plaintiffs, said the settlement involves about $80 million. He said he expects Buckley to give final approval of the accord on May 15.
"This settlement is a testament to the thousands of Jewish families who have been traumatized because of the conduct of Eden Memorial Park and SCI," Avenatti said. "We have been honored to represent these families and as promised nearly five years ago, we did not rest until truth prevailed. We are pleased with the settlement and are proud that this lawsuit resulted in SCI immediately changing its business practices at Eden to ensure this never happens to another family again."
The settlement will provide for a fund that allows class members to exhume and remove loved ones from Eden Memorial Park for free and receive a full refund of all amounts paid to Eden for plots, goods and services, Avenatti said.
The fund will also provide the class members, who have pre-purchased unused graves, to receive a full refund of all monies paid to Eden, according to Avenatti.
The remainder of the settlement fund will be divided on a per-grave basis among the class members who submit claims during the claims period, Avenatti said. In addition, the settlement will require the defendants to institute substantial corrective measures to prevent the alleged wrongful conduct from occurring in the future, Avenatti said. "Now the families and their loved ones can finally begin to have peace knowing that these unconscionable practices will no longer be allowed to continue at Eden Memorial Park," said another of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Jason Frank.
In his opening statement, Avenatti said that for 25 years Eden Memorial Park management "repeatedly desecrated graves, broke outer burial containers, damaged coffins and mishandled human remains.
Gurnee told jurors that no wrongdoing occurred on the part of his clients.
"Not a single one of the plaintiffs have been able to establish that a grave of a loved one was damaged or tampered with in any way," Gurnee said.
The nine plaintiffs represent a class of an estimated 25,000 Eden clients and family members who collectively spent almost $100 million for services over a quarter of a century, Avenatti said. Two of the plaintiffs were in court today to hear the preliminary approval of the settlement.
Many of the remains were placed in a section of the cemetery known as "the dump," Avenatti alleged.
Gurnee said that the plaintiffs' case is based largely on internal memos generated during a two-day training session for groundskeepers in October 2007. In the memos, groundskeepers were critical of the burial practices at Eden Memorial Park and said they worried they would be fired if they complained.
Gurnee said many of those groundskeepers, as well as some cemetery officials, gave sworn testimony that sharply contradicts what is stated in the memos.
Avenatti said the class period extends from February 1985, when SCI acquired the cemetery, until the filing of the lawsuit in September 2009. The class members were induced to choose Eden Memorial Park instead of other burial grounds they would have selected had they known about the alleged misconduct there, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
The lawsuit alleges that SCI and its employees purposely desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves and improperly disposed of human remains and bones.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have estimated damages at more than $500 million.
In July 2012, the state Supreme Court denied SCI's attempt to have Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr's class-certification order overturned.
The lawsuit alleges that groundskeepers were repeatedly instructed by cemetery management to secretly break outer burial containers with a backhoe and remove, dump and/or discard the human remains -- including human skulls -- in so-called "spoils piles" in order to make room for new burials.
New graves were then placed over the areas where the discarded remains were placed, Avenatti alleged.
Avenatti played for jurors excerpts of the video deposition of an Eden Cemetery groundskeeper who said he sometimes saw bones fall out of burial containers during digging to make space for new graves.
Some of the bones were put back in the containers, but others were discarded, according to the employee, Elias Medina.
"You throw away people's bones in the dump?," Medina was asked.
"Yes," Medina replied.
Avenatti also played the deposition of the supervisor, Zeke Perez, who said he would replace bones in containers if they spilled out.
"The bones would come out and we would place them back, return them," Perez said.
Asked if he would use a shovel to return the bones to the containers, Perez answered, "No. My hands."
Avenatti said such a tactic was improper.
"Not a single witness will appear in this case ... and testify that the conduct of handling remains with one's own bare hands is acceptable in the industry," Avenatti told jurors.
Avenatti previously said he believes the alleged improper burial practices continue today at Eden Memorial Park.
All of the actions were done to increase profits, according to the lawsuit. SCI concealed the alleged wrongdoing by threatening employees and witnesses with retaliation and the loss of their jobs, according to the complaint.
Gurnee said there were no human remains in the spoils piles. He said that area contained debris from various sources, including damage sustained by the cemetery in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and dirt from the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway.