FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ They won't provide evidence or names of victims to back up their claims quite yet, but attorneys suing a cemetery operator allege one of South Florida's best-known Jewish cemeteries has misplaced bodies and desecrated graves.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in Palm Beach Circuit Court alleges problems at Star of David Memorial Gardens Cemetery and Funeral Chapel, and the Bailey Memorial Gardens _ two adjacent cemeteries that operate as one _ in North Lauderdale. Those problems include losing human remains, burying individuals in the wrong graves, secretly digging up human remains and moving them without notification to the families, and improperly disposing of burial containers in a lake located at the edge of the cemetery. The suit seeks $200 million in damages.
It's the second major South Florida complaint against the cemetery's Texas-based parent company, Service Corporation International.
In 2001, hundreds of families began making claims against SCI regarding two other cemeteries - Menorah Gardens in Southwest Ranches and West Palm Beach. That case was settled for $100 million.
SCI attorney Walter Yoka could not be reached for comment despite two calls to his Los Angeles office. Star of David referred calls to the national SCI office in Houston. Said SCI spokeswoman Jessica McDunn: "We are not able to comment on pending litigation."
"This is Menorah all over again but on a much greater scale," claimed Michael Avenatti, lead attorney for the plaintiffs based in Newport Beach, Calif.
Two plaintiffs are named so far - men who purchased plots who say they wouldn't have had they known about the problems alleged in the lawsuit. But Avenatti said he expects in excess of 1,000 families to be impacted.
He said the problems at the cemetery came to light when he was contacted by a customer's family. "We know based on our investigation _ interviews with employees, documents and photographic and video evidence," he said. "We're not at liberty (to say) how we found out about this or what spurred our investigation but we've been working on this for some time."
"We would have thought Menorah would have been enough for this company to change its practices but obviously it wasn't."
Avenatti alleges groundskeepers at the cemetery were instructed to crush containers _ the outer box the coffin is placed in _ in order to make room for new interments, and threatened with loss of their jobs if they spoke out.
"It's self-evident that families that bring their loved ones to be buried at any cemetery expect their loved ones remains to be treated with dignity, respect and the upmost care," he said. "We expect the magnitude of the problem at this cemetery will dwarf that of Menorah."
In that case, family members accused SCI of burying some bodies on top of each other, and removing and misplacing others. The Menorah Gardens in West Palm Beach was eventually renamed Star of David Cemetery and Funeral Chapel of the Palm Beaches.