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Funeral Home Accused of Routine Falsification of Death Certificates

September 27, 1987|T.W. McGARRY | Times Staff Writer

A Westside funeral home routinely altered death certificates to avoid delays in funeral services or the expense of legally mandated coroner's reviews, according to a mortuary supervisor whose charges were corroborated by 10 doctors.

Paul Sanders Jr., 25, of Panorama City, night supervisor for the Malinow & Silverman funeral home, told The Times that he collected evidence of more than 100 instances in which death certificates were altered, and the physician's signature sometimes forged, by Malinow & Silverman employees before the certificates were filed with county health authorities.

The Times showed certificates to a sample of 13 physicians. Ten doctors said their names had been forged or the certificates had been altered after they were signed and turned over to Malinow & Silverman.

Subsidiary of Houston Firm

Malinow & Silverman is a subsidiary of Service Corp. International of Houston, a $386-million firm that is the largest funeral home and cemetery corporation in the United States. About 5% of all American and Canadian deaths are handled by some subsidiary of the corporation.

Executives of Malinow & Silverman at 1500 S. Sepulveda Blvd. did not respond to requests for comment. The Times made more than a dozen telephoned requests over four days.

Donald Campbell, executive vice president of Service Corp. International, said the parent corporation was conducting its own investigation of the mortuary "and if any of these allegations are true, it's without the knowledge of the corporation."

"We have a strong corporate commitment to comply with all existing laws, federal and state. Beyond that we are not in a position to comment," he said.

The California Department of Health Services is also investigating Malinow & Silverman at the request of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Department. State investigators served a search warrant on the funeral home Aug. 20, seizing funeral and employment records and questioning employees.

State health department representatives refused to discuss details of their investigation. But Senior Investigator Lisa Vernon stated in an application to a Municipal Court judge for a search warrant that two instances of falsification of doctors' signatures had been discovered after a tip from "an anonymous informant" to the coroner's office.

Sanders said he was the informant.

1,000 Certificates Reviewed

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services said investigators were reviewing 1,900 death certificates handled by Malinow & Silverman from Jan. 1, 1985, to the present. To date, she said, investigators had found "no reason to believe that any of the workers, employees or current management is involved in any wrongdoing."

Investigators indicated that suspicion was focused on disgruntled former employees who had not worked for the mortuary recently. The Times corroborated falsification of physicians' signatures as late as June, 1987, however.

It is a misdemeanor to fraudulently fill out a death certificate and a felony to file a fraudulent certificate with the state, carrying a penalty of up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In California, funeral homes usually collect death certificates from physicians, complete them, and present them to the county Department of Health Services, which must issue a "permit for disposition of human remains" before a body can be buried or cremated.

Doctors normally fill out only about one third of the one-page death certificates. The mortuary fills in the remainder--including identification of the deceased, his or her parents and occupation.

But by state law, the coroner must review all "violent, sudden or unusual" deaths for evidence of crimes, malpractice, suicide, negligence, occupational hazards or accidents. If a physician lists any of the causes on a long list of possible indicators of "sudden or unusual" death, the health department withholds the disposition permit until the coroner's office clears the case.

Often that involves only a telephone conversation with the doctor who certified the death or a visit to the mortuary by a coroner's investigator, but sometimes it can mean the body must be turned over to the coroner for an autopsy. Of the 17,000 bodies the coroner's office handles annually, about 10,000 are actually brought to the coroner's office for examinations or autopsies, spokesman Bill Gold said.

The others are investigated through telephone inquiries or examinations at funeral homes or hospitals, he said.

Sanders alleged that one-quarter to one-third of all death certificates processed by Malinow & Silverman were altered. Often the purpose was to remove anything that would elicit a coroner's review, he said, because the delay while the case is in the hands of the coroner costs the mortuary from $100 to $300 and can hurt business by offending the deceased's family.

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