Lengthy public meeting not long enough to answer all of Grandview patrons' concerns

Cindy DiFazio - Staff Writer

A capacity crowd gathered on Sunday, May 20 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds to hear from lawyers involved in the Grandview Memorial Gardens debacle. Attorneys Richard Shevitz and Vess Miller of Cohen and Malad in Indianapolis were present to explain the legal side of a class action lawsuit filed regarding missing money and trust funds at Grandview.

Attorney Tony Goebel of New Albany, a native of Madison, was also there, having been retained by the Grandview Committee to represent plaintiffs concerning the physical conditions at Grandview.
Shevitz spoke first regarding the misuse of the prearrangement trust fund. He told the crowd, “The good news is, from our perspective, we have a good understanding of the problem. The bad news is that a lawsuit is only a lawsuit and they move slowly.” Shevitz cautioned attendees that the loss of money would not be remedied in the very near future. He confirmed what the people involved already felt to be true, that though they had paid their money into the trust fund, most of it is no longer there. Shevitz said that papers have been served against the owners/operators dating back to the late 1960’s as well as the financial institutions who served as trustees. He stated that the hope is always that defendants will want to resolve the issues, but the reality is that often they will drag their feet trying to postpone legal procedures. The suit will go after the cemetery owners/operators for false documentation. Shevitz shared one report of a withdrawal of $8,200 from trust fund money for the burial expenses of a woman who is still alive today. The trustees (banks) are being sued for not reviewing the documentation - “not minding the store.”

Tony Goebel was up next. He began by sharing his credentials with the group. Besides being an established lawyer, having worked with the highly reputable firm of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs out of Louisville, KY, Goebel is an ordained minister. “In 2001, I got a call from God,” he said. While serving as pastor of a New Albany Church, he kept his hand in the law by offering pro bono work to people who needed a lawyer but couldn’t afford one. “I’ve always had a ministry to the sick and dying,” Goebel went on to say, “and I understand how upsetting this is to people. This is the worst possible scenario for you.”

He said that he has asked for help from his former colleagues at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs and they have agreed to assist.

Goebel explained the different types of lawsuits that could be brought in regards to the physical conditions at Grandview. He said that a tort could be brought for negligence in handling the needs of clients. Also a breech-of-contract and anticipatory breech-of-contract could be filed. He said they could also file a tort of outrage that covers conduct so egregious that the court deems it to be outrageous.
Goebel noted that the case is very complex because plaintiffs fall into different subclasses, and some of those subclasses overlap. Some of those subclasses are:

* People who have relatives improperly buried already
* People who have prepaid for their burial but have not needed it yet
* People who have already exhumed relatives and paid for new burial expenses
Following the statements of the attorneys, the public was asked for their input.

Widow Joella Snell told her story first. Her husband and two sons are buried at Grandview. When her husband died, son Roger went out to the cemetery and noted there was mud and water standing in the grave. He asked the funeral home to hold the body until they could find a dry grave for him. Mrs. Snell said that they then had to exhume the body of youngest son, Jimmy Joe and purchase a new headstone for her eldest son, Eugene. “I paid everything once, I paid everything twice,” she lamented. “This has just about destroyed my life.”

John Jones had three questions. First, he asked, “If we opt to go elsewhere for burial, will we still be part of the class action?” Goebel answered, “Yes, but it will be at your expense until a settlement is reached and hopefully, you will be reimbursed.”

Secondly, he questioned, “If money is due a family, what if they (the plaintiffs) don’t have the money?” Richard Shevitz noted, “That is a concern. We are not sure at this time if there will be enough money.” He commented that the former owners/operators did have insurance policies in effect at some point to cover these kinds of incidences (water in the graves, etc.). He said that the policies were occurrence policies meaning that if the negligence happened when the insurance was in effect it doesn’t matter when the claim is filed. Plaintiffs will still be eligible for monetary relief.

Shevitz also stated that some of the owners/operators named in the suit, for instance, Carriage Funeral Services out of Texas who posted $184 million in sales last year as well as the banks involved, are money-making operations whose current assets may be tapped. The attorneys who are all performing this work on a contingency basis promised, “We will look under every rock to recoup this money.”
Jones’ third question was, “Do you anticipate there will be criminal charges filed by the state?” Goebel answered, “As I understand the law, it is up to the local prosecutor’s discretion to press criminal charges.” He averred, “Crimes were probably committed.”

Many people in attendance who have prepaid funeral expenses wanted to know if expenses would still be covered if they or a loved one had need of burial services in the near future. He told them that while their plots are still there, the money is not or will not be soon. He stated, “You may be standing there with a signed contract in your hand and the cemetery might say ‘Sorry, there’s no money.’”

Goebel also noted that people might want to check where their plots are in case they are in the part of the cemetery that doesn’t drain.

Allegedly, the Devotion Section has good drainage while the rest of the sections do not. Donna Carson refuted that saying her father was the first one disinterred, that he was buried in the best area, and his casket was still in water. That information triggered questions such as, “Will we have to buy another vault?” “What about people who don’t have the money to pay twice?” and so forth. Shevitz counseled, “You can’t plan your life around the possible outcome of this lawsuit.” Goebel agreed, adding, “Hopefully, there will be enough to take care of everyone.”

Keith Dixon, noting that the state has regulations regarding cemeteries asked, “Is the state offering help?” To a round of applause, Goebel asserted, “The problem is with the state. They’re not doing anything.” He encouraged concerned citizens to engage in a letter-writing campaign to the state attorney general’s office. “Tell him to do his job,” he encouraged.

In the same vein, Judy Hoffman, inquired, “What needs to be done locally?” Goebel suggested that folks ask the prosecutors to check if criminal laws have been broken, but stated candidly, “This lies right at the feet of the attorney general. It all goes right back to Indianapolis.”

Shirley Jones, a former area resident, stated that her parents as well as her brother and sister-in-law are buried at Grandview and she wondered who is taking care of the lots now. Terry Rowlett, head of the Grandview committee, told her, “It’s not being maintained as well as it should.” However, he went on to explain, “We’re doing the best we can.”

Several members of the audience as well as the Grandview committee noted that current owner, Keith Mefford, is taking care of the property as well as he can, even spending his own money on maintenance. Rowlett praised Mefford’s handling of Grandview’s problems saying, “You won’t find anyone more committed to Grandview than he is. He really cares.” This was followed by a huge round of applause for Mefford.

In the audience was State Representative Dave Cheatham who recently helped to get legislation passed addressing problems in the funeral industry. He addressed the crowd, “I am trying to help with this situation.” He explained that recent legislation has accomplished the following:

* A consumer protection fund has been established to provide reimbursements for additional expenses (such as those incurred by people who purchased prepaid burial packages at Grandview) has been increased from $1.5 to $2.5 million.

* A perpetual care fund will go into effect on July 1 which can be used to maintain cemeteries until lawsuits are settled.

* Accounting procedures have been put into place which will not allow monies from trust funds to be mingled in with operating funds.

Cheatham assured the group, “We are trying to address the present problem and keep it from happening again.” He cautioned, however, “It is happening elsewhere and it’s shocking how deep it goes.”

To check on the status of the current class-action lawsuit visit www.cohenandmalad.com.

It was standing room only on Sunday, May 20 at a public meeting held at the Jefferson County 4-H Fairgrounds to address the status of class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of Grandview Memorial Gardens' patrons.