The Texas Supreme Court recently decided Service Corporation International v. Guerra No. 09-0941 (Tex. 2011). This case involved a suit by a family against a cemetery company that intentionally moved a body without permission, after the body had been buried in the wrong lot and the family refused the request to move the corpse. Now, why would we be discussing this case in a blog about employee rights? Good question. The reason is that this case discusses three areas that appear frequently in employment cases. These three areas include the problem of suing the correct defendant, the requirements to recover mental anguish, and the admissibility of evidence of other wrongs by the defendant. First, the issue of the correct defendant. In employment cases it is always a concern and a problem as to who is the correct employer and, then, once you think you know the company, getting the name correct. In the Guerra case, the plaintiff sued Service Corporation International (the holding company) and Service Corporation Texas, a wholly owned affiliate corporation. The court explored a lot of detailed evidence on whether the holding company was liable and found it was not, thereby dismissing them. Anyone concerned about this area should read the details for tips on how to avoid this disaster. Second, the court discussed the mental anguish of the daughters of the father, who was buried and then moved, and found that their evidence did not rise to the level of compensable mental anguish. This is an area that really drives plaintiff’s lawyers crazy, as these “ivory tower” judges second guess what is enough words to justify an award of mental anguish damages. The problem with this subject is that emotions are difficult to put into words and sometimes people are not good at expressing themselves, especially in the formal atmosphere of a courtroom. Also, the requirement of using certain “magic words” ignores the non-verbal visible emotions and reactions of the witness on the witness stand, which the jury sees and can take into account. In any event, the Guerra daughters did not use enough of the correct words to convince the Supreme Court that they had suffered a “high degree of mental pain and distress” or a “substantial disruption of their daily routine”. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the wife of the deceased did testify to enough suffering to justify mental anguish damages. The wife stated that “when she found out her late husband’s grave had been tampered with she could not sleep at night and went through a lot of stress. She testified that she suffered burning in her stomach due to the stress and sought medical treatment for the symptoms. She continued to have headaches and take medication for anxiety and depression. She indicated that she had been worrying and having fear and anxiety about what might be done to her at Monta Meta (the cemetery) for nearly six years since Mr. Guerra’s casket was moved.” The Court held that this is some evidence to support the jury’s findings. Although, the wife did see a doctor, the Supreme Court did not hold that medical treatment was necessary to obtain mental anguish damages. The third area was the evidence of other wrong doing by the cemetery. The trial court allowed the plaintiff to show other acts of the defendant involved in other lawsuits. The Supreme Court held that these other suits and acts were irrelevant since they failed to show that they were all part of a “system, scheme, or plan”. Also, the Court held that the other incidents involving moving of bodies were different enough that they were not admissible.
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