Georgia Court of Appeals Tackles Case Involving Empty Urn

photo_754_20060109The first line of the Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Justice v. SCI Georgia Funeral Services Inc. (PDF-embedded link) is enough to inform the reader that what follows will be an interesting read. In short, this case arose from a funeral home mistakenly giving an empty urn to the principal plaintiff in this case, a grieving mother whose daughter’s ashes were supposed to be in the urn she received. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals needed to determine whether it was appropriate for the trial court to grant the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all the plaintiffs’ claims associated with this mistake.

The death that started the series of events leading to this decision occurred in December 2007. The day following the death, the decedent’s mother, a plaintiff in this case, contracted with Striffler-Hamby Mortuary for cremation and memorial services. The contract provided that the ashes be transferred from a crematory to the funeral home and then to an urn that would be presented at the memorial services. The memorial services were held on December 28, 2007. On that day, the funeral director got the urn with the decedent’s name from the office at the funeral home. The director looked inside the urn, which contained a temporary container customarily used to store ashes, and assumed that ashes were inside. He took the urn to the chapel and, at the conclusion of the memorial services, gave the empty urn to the mother. Shortly thereafter, on the same day of the memorial, the decedent’s ashes were delivered to the funeral home. Realizing his mistake, the director contacted the mother and asked to speak in person. The director went to the mother’s home, told the mother of the error, and asked if he might take back the urn. The mother granted the request, and the director took the urn back to the funeral home, where he put in the decedent’s ashes. The director returned to the mother’s home. No one answered the door, but he eventually spotted the mother and a friend of the mother upon entering the residence without permission. The director again apologized for the mistake and left the urn. Afterward, the funeral home canceled the need for payment under the contract and did not otherwise charge the decedent’s family for the services provided. Despite the gesture, the mother and several other family members filed suit against the funeral home and the funeral director, asserting claims for breach of contract, interference of burial rights, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotion distress, and trespass. Following discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment on all the claims, and the trial court granted the motion in full.

 Although the Georgia Court of Appeals sided with the trial court’s grant of summary judgment on the overwhelming majority of the claims, the court did reverse with respect to the breach of contract claim. In opposition to the motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs argued that there was an issue of material fact concerning whether the defendants’ failure to have the ashes at the memorial service constituted a breach of the agreement. In resolving the breach of contract issue, the trial court held that even if there was an issue of material fact, summary judgment was still warranted because the defendants did not charge for their services, and thus the plaintiff suffered no pecuniary damages as a result of the breach. Although this is true, Georgia law provides that in every case of breach of contract the injured party has a right to at least nominal damages sufficient to cover the cost of brining the action. Eastview Healthcare v. Synertx, Inc., 296 Ga. App. 393, 399 (4) (2009); see O.C.G.A. § 13-6-6. Thus, even if there were no actual damages, a jury would still need to decide whether there was a breach, since such a finding would still entitle the plaintiffs to the nominal damages.

On the remaining claims, however, the plaintiffs were not as fortunate. Indeed, both intentional infliction of emotional distress and interference with burial rights require that the complained-of conduct be willful or wanton. In this case, the evidence shows, at most, that the conduct of the defendants was negligent. Accordingly, summary judgment was proper. In addition, the plaintiffs’ theory of invasion of privacy required that they show unreasonable intrusion into private affairs. However, in this case, there was no evidence of physical intrusion, unreasonable surveillance, or other invasion on the plaintiffs’ private concerns. Finally, although the plaintiffs argued that the director committed trespass when he entered the mother’s home without asking on his second trip to return the urn, trespass requires that one interfere with another’s possessory interest in real property. The evidence did not state that the director ever refused to leave after being directed to or that he otherwise interfered with the property owner’s possessory interest in the realty. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment with respect to these four claims.

Although suing for receiving an empty urn may seem excessive, mistakes related to burial can have a severe emotional impact on family members of the deceased. Indeed, these cases are actually not that uncommon, and those who have suffered emotional trauma related to the intentional or negligent treatment of a loved one’s remains should consider options they may have to address these injuries. The Atlanta negligence attorneys at The Simon Law Firm have knowledge about standard and unorthodox Georgia injury claims and are ready to provide you with the legal advice you may need. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a complementary case consultation.

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