By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The lawyer for the family of the man who was mistakenly cremated and whose casket was inhabited by a stranger at his funeral service in Chehalis said they held back on filing a lawsuit until the state licensing authority finished its investigation.
It didn’t provide them all the answers they were looking for, attorney Shawn Briggs said.
“It focused on where the initial mistake was made, and it really stopped there,” Briggs said. “It didn’t address how the mistake was perpetuated.”
Jerry Moon was 72 years old when he died in October 2013 at a hospice facility in Longview.
He and his wife Jan Moon lived in Castle Rock, but he, having been born and raised in Chehalis, had plans to be buried in his family plot in Claquato Cemetery, according to Briggs.
Sixteen years earlier, he had entered into a pre-arranged contract with Brown Mortuary Service of Chehalis, at a guaranteed price of $4,655, that provided for arrangement and professional staff services, and various other items including embalming, viewing, funeral and graveside services as well as disposition by burial in a casket, according to the lawsuit.
Jerry Moon feared cremation, according to Briggs.
Briggs and Briggs of Lakewood filed the complaint for damages last week in Lewis County Superior Court on behalf of Jan Moon and other immediate family members.
According to the lawsuit, and to an investigation conducted by the Washington State Funeral and Cemetery Board, on October 13, 2013, acting at the request or direction of Brown Mortuary’s parent company Service Corporation International, an employee of Dahl McVicker Funeral Home picked up Moon’s body from Community Home Health and Hospice in Longview. In the same trip, he collected the body of another man who had died there at nearly the same time.
Instead of putting identification bracelets on the bodies at the hospice, he brought them back to McVicker’s where he put Moon’s bracelet on Robert Petitclerc; and he placed Petitclerc’s bracelet on Moon.
On Oct. 15, an employee of McVicker’s released the body labeled Moon to a Brown’s employee for transport to Lewis County.
Another employee of McVicker’s took the body labeled Petitclerc to be cremated on Oct. 17.
The state licensing board placed blame for the mixup on Dahl McVicker, and the sanctions for unprofessional conduct included a fine of $12,500 and one year of probation, according to an agreed order signed last May.
Christine Anthony, a spokesperson for licensing board said they found no wrongdoing on the part of Brown Mortuary, concluding it was unaware of the misidentification and didn’t commit any violations.
The lawsuit filed on April 21 seeking an unspecified amount of damages names both entities, specifically Service Corporation International, doing business as Brown Mortuary Service and The Pierce Group, doing business as Dahl McVicker Funeral Home.
SCI, a Texas corporation, describes itself as the North America’s largest deathcare provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services.
Moon’s funeral service was held on Oct. 21, 2013 at Brown’s.
The lawsuit contends Brown’s conspired to cover up that Moon had been mistakenly cremated, and that defendants knew the wrong body was delivered to Brown’s and acted in concert to conceal the error.
The suit states Brown’s knew or should have known the body – of a man in his 90s – they embalmed and dressed in Moon’s clothing was not Moon.
In preparing for the service, Brown’s was provided with over 60 photographs of Moon.
“When the casket was opened at the end of the service, guests were horrified by what appeared to be a plastic bag covering the head and face of the body in the casket,” the lawsuit states. “When the plastic was removed, guests at the service, including the plaintiffs, were shocked to discover that the body inside was not Moon’s.”
Despite knowledge to the contrary, representatives of Browns insisted and tried to convince Moons’ family the body in the casket was Moon and should be buried as planned in his grave, the lawsuit contends.
“The manager was insistent it was him,” Briggs said. “Saying, people do look different after death.”
“They don’t grow a full head of hair,” he said.
Moon was bald with a recently shaved head when he died.
Briggs said the conversation continued until Brian Moon said, “Show me my dad’s colostomy bag.”
“And in the next breath, the manager said, ‘No, it isn’t him, but it wasn’t my fault’.”
Briggs said Brown’s then put the son on the phone with McVicker, and he was in total shock and grief, learning his father had been cremated.
“It was chaos,” Briggs said.
The suit also claims Jan Moon was charged $8,834 by Brown’s to do what it had previously contracted to do for $4,655, and that afterward, sent her a refund check for $92.72.
“Instead of being treated with dignity, Jerry Moon’s family was demeaned and denied the opportunity to honor their loved one in laying him to rest,” Briggs wrote.
Multiple phone calls to Brown Mortuary manager Daniel LaPlaunt seeking comment were not returned.
The suit asks for damages for the plaintiffs’ emotional distress, financial losses and other special damages to be proven at trial.
Briggs said he previously represented the family of the other man, Petitclerc. They never actually filed suit, he said, they discussed it and negotiated a settlement.
The defendants have 60 days to respond to the complaint, once they are served, he said.
After that, “We go though the litigation process,” he said. “Put people under oath and ask people questions about why they did what they did, and then we end up in front of a jury.”