$100 million settlement OK’d in Menorah grave desecrations

By Peter Franceschina and Rafael A. Olmeda
Staff Writers

December 3, 2003

Attorneys representing thousands of people in a class action lawsuit against the operator of two troubled Menorah Gardens cemeteries in Broward and Palm Beach counties reached a $100 million settlement in the case late Tuesday.

“It is a substantial settlement that we believe will greatly benefit the class,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Neal Hirschfeld, who represents the plaintiffs.

The settlement came after an intense day of back-and-forth negotiations over the widespread burial problems at the two cemeteries, operated by Service Corporation International, the largest provider of funeral services in the country. It covers not only the class-action case but also several other Broward County lawsuits filed against SCI.

The settlement does not include a case pending against SCI in Palm Beach County, in which about 60 families are suing over burial problems.

“We are pleased to have this matter resolved so that we can devote more of our attention and resources to serving our client families and focusing on achieving our strategic objectives,” SCI Chairman and Chief Executive Officer R. L. Waltrip said in a statement.

There are further details to be worked out today, said a Coral Gables attorney from Colson Hicks Eidson, who also represents the plaintiffs.

“We are very pleased we can bring justice to the victims of this case,” he said.

The settlement was reached after jury selection was postponed Tuesday morning in an individual lawsuit filed on behalf of family members of a war veteran, Air Force Col. Hymen Cohen of Lake Worth, whose remains were dug up and tossed into the woods at the Palm Beach County Menorah Gardens cemetery.

Broward County Circuit Judge J. Leonard Fleet suspended the jury selection at the request of the attorneys so they could continue settlement negotiations in that case.

One of the attorneys said the prospect of going to trial in the Cohen case likely prompted SCI to decide to settle the much larger class action case.

“I think the reality of having to face a trial encouraged them to want to resolve the matter that was before them, which was Col. Hymen Cohen’s, and it encouraged them to settle it globally,” he said. “The details of the settlement are not final. We have a settlement agreement in principle.”

Lillian Gruber, 79, of Sunrise, who said she is uncertain that her husband, Joseph, was buried where he was supposed to be, said she was surprised by news of the settlement.

“I thought I wasn’t going to live long enough to learn that it was settled. I thought it would go on for years and years,” she said. “But I’ll never know where my husband is. The thought that he was not allowed to rest in peace, that part is a constant heartbreak that will never be settled.”

Fleet’s decision on Monday to allow for punitive damages in the Cohen case likely helped to spur the larger settlement negotiations, said Miami attorney Jim Ferraro, who was not involved in the case.

“The threat of punitive damages has a way of waking up corporations,” he said. “Juries would not take too kindly to this kind of case. A funeral is the last act in a person’s existence. Families want finality and closure. Tampering with that causes quite a bit of distress, and a jury would sympathize with the plaintiffs.”

The details of the settlement will be presented to Fleet during a Thursday morning court hearing, Hirschfeld said. Fleet is presiding over the Cohen case and the class action case and must approve the terms of the settlement.

It is unlikely Fleet will reject the settlement.

“Not with those numbers,” plaintiffs’ counsel said. “I think it is impressive. It is not a settlement for coupons.”

Class members would be compensated based on the amount of damages they have suffered. He said the Florida Attorney General’s Office would help in determining the amounts of those damages.

In civil suits and state investigations, SCI employees are accused of routinely burying people in the wrong places, breaking open vaults to squeeze in other burials, and, in a few instances, removing scattered bones from broken vaults and tossing them into a maintenance yard or in the woods.

Allegations of widespread problems at the two cemeteries surfaced in December 2001, with the filing of the first South Florida lawsuit against Houston-based SCI. State officials also announced they were opening investigations into the company.

The Attorney General’s Office later filed a civil suit against the company that was settled in May with SCI agreeing to pay up to $14 million in fines and restitution and agreeing to ensure that burial problems won’t occur again.

Criminal charges also were filed in May of this year, based on interviews with former Menorah Gardens employees, family members and corporate documents.

SCI and its Florida subsidiary are each charged with two third-degree felonies for being negligent and incompetent in the operation of the cemeteries. SCI Florida’s vice president, Jeffrey Frucht, 44, faces those same charges. A former Menorah Gardens grounds supervisor in Palm Beach County has pleaded guilty to exhuming two bodies without seeking relatives’ permission.

West Palm Beach attorney Ted Leopold, who represents the 60 families in a separate case in West Palm Beach, said he filed a motion Tuesday notifying the judge he intends to seek punitive damages against SCI in that case.

Leopold, who said he was not privy to the negotiations involving the Broward County cases, said he would press on with his case.

“We look forward to having our day in court,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Peter Franceschina can be reached at pfranceschina@ sun-sentinel.com or 561-832-2894.

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