The 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.