In my torts class, we discuss liability for the mishandling of corpses as well as torts like the intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress related to deceased remains. The latest such example could well be a torts final hypothetical. Wylie Funeral Homes in Baltimore is accused of giving a widow an empty urn and lying about the handling of the remains of her deceased husband. It only gets more bizarre from there. We will be discussing this case in class for years to come.
Ivan Street reportedly died on Jan. 9 from congestive heart failure at 67. Four days later, Demetra Street produced a valid marriage license in arranging a funeral. The couple was separated and living apart. According to her lawyer, who is appropriately named Alex Coffin, she is in fact the only legal widow. The home finalized a $2,500 contract for the funeral.
Demetra Street says that she sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” in memory of Ivan Street in front of grieving friends. However, an employee quickly whisked away the urn after the funeral and later employees refused to turn over his ashes.
According to her lawsuit, Wylie Funeral Home was actually confronted with two women claiming to be the widow of Ivan Street. It informed Demetra that another woman was making the claim and Demetra told them that the other woman was not in fact his legal widow.
However, the home allegedly then entered a separate contract with the other woman for a second service. That woman allegedly presented a marriage license from October 1997 that was lacking a seal. Nevertheless, she was given the body, which was actually buried at Baltimore’s Mount Zion Cemetery.
Days after being refused the ashes, Demetra Street was finally told by staffer that her husband has a “resting location at Mt. Zion Cemetery.”
She is now suing the business for $8.5 million, saying it breached its contract with her and made false representations. I have tried to locate the complaint. It presumably contains tort claims in addition to the contracts claims.
We have discussed past cases of mishandling remains, abandonment, abuse of corpses, negligent transportation, misdelivery of remains, criminal acts, and cemetery abuses. While many involve funeral homes, some bizarre cases involvement other individuals abusing corpses, airlines losing corpses, shipping errors, donated body part abuses, hospital theft, and medical examiner abuses.
The common law has long recognized the tort of mishandling corpses. There are other obvious torts. For example, the Restatement (2nd) of Torts, section 46, states:
One who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another is subject to liability for such emotional distress, and if bodily harm to the other results from it, for such bodily harm.
This would seem to meet that standard. Learning that you were singing to an empty urn and that your husband was buried by a stranger is horrific. There are also questions of simple negligence as well as the added question of negligence per se for any violation of an applicable standard of conduct under state or federal law.
Damages in such cases tend to run high due to the intense vulnerability and stress of families in dealing with the loss of a loved one.
The alleged resolution by the funeral home could prove a costly mistake. On the possession of the body, it was expected to confirm the lawful widow rather than attempt a fifty-fifty gamble between the two women. The second woman could also face questions if she was in fact not the lawful widow or not lawfully married. Wylie could try to bring her into the case as a co-defendant or shift the responsibility to her. Two widows are one too many for the law, particularly when that status is critical in the legal claim over a corpse.