A judge has signed a judgment ending a long-running lawsuit that Catholic cemeteries were in such disrepair that members of one family could not find their loved ones’ graves and which questioned the use of cemetery care and maintenance fees within the burial contracts.
The Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit, filed against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in August 2017, was tried without a jury before Judge Elihu M. Berle in 2022 with Martha Hernandez as the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit.
In the judgment signed Thursday, Berle found that the burial contracts presented to the plaintiffs violated the Unfair Competition Law of the state Business and Professions Code by misrepresenting the purpose for the fees, care and maintenance charge in their agreements during the specified class period. However, the judge awarded no restitution to the class members because they did not offer evidence of any difference of what any class member paid and the value of what any class member received.
The fees, care and maintenance charges were removed from the burial contracts as of March 2020 because of the lawsuit, the judgment states.
“A significant benefit has been conferred upon a large class of person, namely all persons who signed or will sign burial contracts after the above date in that they will not be deceptively charged for fees, care and maintenance,” according to the judgment, which also allows the plaintiffs to bring a motion for attorneys’ fees.
In a separate statement of decision in January, the judge said that there was nothing in the burial contracts that would lead consumers to think that the fees, care and maintenance charges would be used for anything other than the upkeep of the cemetery plots. Yet, in 2007, the archdiocese used $80 million from a care fund containing some of those same monies to pay for settlements of sex abuse lawsuits, according to the judge, who also said the ongoing care and maintenance of the cemeteries was paid for from the archdiocese’s general operating fund.
An archdiocese spokeswoman released a statement shortly after the suit was filed.
“We want to assure our patrons that our cemeteries are committed to the steadfast care of the resting places of their loved ones,” according to the archdiocese. “If there is a concern regarding the care of a grave at any of our cemeteries, patrons are asked to please contact the cemetery manager.”
The archdiocese also stated: “The care of our burial grounds is a priority for our Catholic cemeteries as a ministry of the church. Catholic cemeteries, as religious ministries, are not required under state law to create a financial reserve for an endowment care fund. However, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles voluntarily maintains a designated fund that is equivalent to what is required by state law to ensure the perpetual care and maintenance of the final resting places of our Catholic faithful.”
Burial contracts with the archdiocese called for 15% of the amounts paid to be devoted to cemetery maintenance, the suit stated.
However, the archdiocese failed to use the cemetery maintenance fund monies at its burial grounds, leaving them “desecrated” and “in a state of disrepair and neglect,” according to the complaint, which also stated that grave sites were covered in weeds and grave markers were lost, damaged or removed. San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills was one of the cemeteries mentioned in the suit.
“Plaintiffs … cannot locate the grave sites of their decedents …,” the suit stated. “There can be no peace of mind or assurance of a dignified and respectful final resting place … due to defendants’ misconduct.”