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Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

Local cemetery problems lead to class action lawsuit

Thursday, September 8, 2005

(Photo)
Rick Shelton, a Sikeston Public Works employee, mows overgrown grass at the Garden of Memories Cemetery.
SIKESTON - The city is performing temporary maintenance at the Garden of Memories and Memorial Park cemeteries but a more permanent solution is also in the works: a class action lawsuit.

The Sikeston law firm Blanton, Rice, Sidwell, Nickell, Cozean and Collins LLC filed Aug. 25 in the Scott County Circuit Court on behalf of Charles Ulmer, Charles DeWitt and Genie Rice against the companies and persons associated with ownership and operation of the Sikeston Garden of Memories Cemetery, Sikeston Memorial Park Cemetery and Forest Hills Cemetery in Morley, according to Joseph C. Blanton Jr. of the firm.

The suit alleges the defendants have failed to maintain and repair the individual plots and the cemetery as a whole as obligated by representing itself to the public as a perpetual care cemetery which maintains a minimum endowed care and maintenance fund.

A hearing is set for Wednesday on the motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the diversion of funds and other assets of the cemeteries pending the disposition of the case, according to Blanton, who along with John E. Cozean is serving as lead counsel for the lawsuit.

"We've already obtained a temporary restraining order to prohibit the defendants from transferring assets outside the ordinary course of business," he said.

The next step is to ask the judge to certify three classes, one for each of the cemeteries, according to Blanton, "rather than having thousands of separate lawsuits filed." He said the request will be entered before the end of this year.

Potential members of the class include those who own lots in the cemeteries along with those who have family members buried there, "so the class size will be huge," Blanton said.

Once classes are certified, they will ask the judge to set the case for trial.

"We will notify people who are potential members of the class by putting a big ad in the newspaper," Blanton said. "We may also possibly do a mass mailing to those who may have an interest in our lawsuit."

Potential members of the classes will be asked to provide information using a questionnaire available from the law firm's offices or at its Web site, www.blantonlaw.com.

It is anticipated that money recovered from the defendants will be placed in court-approved trust funds for cemetery maintenance. "Our whole goal in this is to try to make sure these cemeteries are maintained in the future," Blanton said.

He declined to estimate how much money could possibly be awarded or how long it might take for a decision to be reached on the case.

"We're just getting started," Blanton said. "The lawsuit has just been filed and hasn't even been answered yet."

Efforts will be made to expedite the case, however: "We intend to pursue this case aggressively," Blanton said.

There is also a pending suit by the Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon which has a different focus.

The attorney general's suit is related to recoveries for grave markers, monuments and other items which were paid for in advance but not delivered.

An investigation by the Missouri Office of Endowed Care Cemeteries is also in progress and the company is facing a variety of legal actions in other states for similar practices related to the operation of cemeteries there.

In other states, cemeteries owned by Mike Graham and Associates have been placed in "receivership," which is when a judge appoints a third party to operate the cemetery - a possible outcome for the Sikeston lawsuit as it has been asked for by the plaintiffs.

"We have no comment whatsoever," said an unidentified spokesperson for Mike Graham and Associates when contacted Wednesday about the lawsuit.