SANTA ANA — An Orange County Superior Court judge certified a class-action lawsuit Friday, allowing an estimated 54,000 plaintiffs to join the suit against local mortuaries and funeral societies accused of mishandling human cremations over 10 years.
The suit was filed in 1991 by eight people who said that the bodies of family members were treated improperly before cremation and that remains mixed with others afterward.
Following a six-day hearing, Judge Eileen C. Moore notified attorneys in the suit that relatives of the estimated 27,000 people cremated at an Anaheim crematory between 1980 and 1991 through six area mortuaries and funeral societies could join the suit. She estimated that an average of two survivors per family might ultimately join the suit.
Defendants include Cremar Inc., the crematory; the Neptune Society of Orange County; Sheffer Mortuary Inc.; Sentinel Cremation Societies Inc.; Tustin Mortuary; and the Telophase Society of America.
Moore ordered a two-part trial: first to decide whether any liability existed; and, if so, what the extent and allocation of damages should be.
All sides, Moore wrote, "will be able to have a jury decide which, if any statutes were violated, when they were violated and if and when any mishandling took place."
In her ruling, the judge noted charges that operators of the crematory, Thomas and Marian Weber, "personally collected the gold (tooth fillings) that the employees took from the remains of the decedents," in a process called "gold harvesting."
Evidence was presented in court, Moore said, that the Webers entered the crematory and "weighed the gold on a jewelry scale," dispatching other staff to Anaheim Metals for sales, which attorneys for the plaintiffs said amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.
The plaintiffs charged that bodies were subjected to "rough treatment," as they were "rushed through the cremation process in a manner that mutilated the bodies before, during and after the process of cremation."
However, Moore said, "At the certification hearing, there was no evidence presented from which a jury could conclude that the mortuary defendants had any idea of the extent of the actions allegedly occurring at the crematory."
Louis M. Marlin, attorney for Sheffer Mortuary Inc., said that he was "slightly disappointed" by the judge's ruling but that it was only a "procedural" defeat.
William A. Kershaw, who was designated lead class counsel for the plaintiffs, called the decision "absolutely appropriate."