A Mesa In Arizona: Family Sues After Corpse Falls Out of Casket Into Grave

In yesterday’s story, the Comito family was shocked (here) when they learned that Robert Comito’s ashes were simply dropped from an airplane without opening the box — landing intact in a crater rather than being elegantly spread in the air. They need to talk to the family of Robert Gowdy to see how it could have been much worst. The family in Phoenix, Arizona is suing the city of Mesa, a funeral home, and other parties after a casket broke during a funeral and allow the corpse to fall into the grave in front of traumatized family members.

The lawsuit is initially striking is the number of plaintiffs. Twenty-four relatives have sued (and their lawsuit was combined with the filing of the widow Roxanne and her three children). They are represented by an attorney, Bertrand Russell — presumably not the philosopher reincarnated.

The complaint states that the family had originally ordered a “Renaissance” solid-wood casket, but when the casket was not available, the Preston funeral home’s director, Rev. James Preston (shown right), offered to “upgrade” to a better “Madison” casket free of charge.

Rev. Preston is also the local minister, here.

At the grave site, the casket was lowered into the grave by city cemetery employees Enido Ayala and Gonzalo Meza. The lowering device suddenly broke — causing the casket to fall into the grave at an angle. The complaint states “The broken strap caused the casket to slide head-first at an angle into the grave, hit the side of the vault, and come to rest in the grave at approximately a 45-degree angle. The impact of the casket into the side of the vault caused the casket lid to disconnect and exposed Robert Sr.’s body to the entire assembly.” When two men tried to lift the damaged box from the grave, the bottom separated from the sides “causing Robert Sr.’s body to slide off the casket and into the bottom of the grave. Robert Sr.’s body was lifted, drug out of the grave, and placed on the ground.” The body then had to be lifted out of the grave by its arms and legs.

What is amazing is that not only did the corpse fall freely into the grave, but witnesses say that Ayala and Meza reportedly fled on foot, the lawsuit states.

The city blames the casket manufacturer Aurora Casket Company, which is a defendant. Also being sued is the Frigid Fluid Company, which made the casket-lowering device.

Notably, Aurora claims:

A natural, environmentally sound choice for caskets, hardwood is strong, beautiful and shock-resistant. When families choose a hardwood casket, they are leaving a legacy for the next generation because wood is a renewable resource.

Here is a picture of the Madison.

For the devices for lowering the caskets, click here.

The family discovered that the “Madison” casket was actually made of particle board held by staples.

While the family might have hoped that every detail of the second funeral would be carefully addressed by the funeral home, it turned out to be another disaster, according to the complaint. Six days after the first attempt, the family gathered at the funeral home only to find that Robert Gowdy was now dressed in what was described as mismatched throw away clothing. They say that, despite the fact that Robert Sr. hated in pinstriped, he was dressed in a mysterious black pinstripe suit with a blue shirt and brown tie. The funeral home said that the original clothing was soiled in the accident. The body was also missing a friendship bracelet Robyn had given to her deceased father.

The mishandling of torts is one of the oldest claims under torts and exposes funeral homes and companies to potential punitive award liability. The large number of litigants will raise some issues for claims like negligent infliction of emotional distress if there is no physical injury and that onlookers are not close relatives. In Arizona, the standard is based on the zone of danger test:

To state a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim arising from witnessing another person’s injury or death, a plaintiff must establish that she was within the “zone of danger,” and “must prove physical injury resulting from the shock of witnessing injury to a closely related person.” Duke v. Cochise County, 189 Ariz. 35, 38, 938 P.2d 84, 87 (App. 1996); see also Keck v. Jackson, 122 Ariz. 114, 115-16, 593 P.2d 668, 669-70 (1979).

It will be interesting to see how many of these litigants can recover for this horrific scene. I have always viewed negligent infliction of emotional distress rules to be too narrow in such cases, where they serve to exclude people with legitimate injury from being exposed to deeply disturbing acts of negligence.

Yet, we have seen similar body dumping cases where the funeral home has prevailed, here.

Other cases often involve dripping liquids or other mistreatment of the body, here and here and here.

For the full story, click here.

6 thoughts on “A Mesa In Arizona: Family Sues After Corpse Falls Out of Casket Into Grave”

  1. I think this is one of the most important info for me. And i am glad reading your article. But want to remark on few general things, The web site style is great, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers

  2. I am ashamed to say that I laughed when I saw the header to this story.

    Woody Allen (I think) once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my little finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.”

    All sympathies to the family, but I just can’t help myself. Me bad, me bad, me bad…

  3. Oh my. Karma was a present for someone. A body is a body that is all. I think the paradox is the minister and officiant are one in the same. Spooky, huh.

  4. Upgrade from cardboard and elmer’s glue? Attempt to devise a new type of trebuchet? I’d be looking for the original suit in the funeral director’s brother’s closet! The friendship bracelet–look for that at his girlfriend’s. I hope they get a substantial settlement.

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