Christensen v. Superior Court, S016890

Citation820 P.2d 181,54 Cal.3d 868,2 Cal.Rptr.2d 79
Decision Date02 December 1991
Docket NumberNo. S016890,S016890
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties, 820 P.2d 181 Donald Paul CHRISTENSEN, et al., Petitioners, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Los Angeles County, Respondent; PASADENA CREMATORIUM OF ALTADENA, et al., Real Parties in Interest

Robie & Matthai, Edith R. Matthai, Pamela E. Dunn, Los Angeles, Lieff, Cabraser & Heimann, Elizabeth Joan Cabraser, William Bernstein, William M. Audet, San Francisco, Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, William A. Kershaw, Robin Leslie Stewart, Michael McShane, Sacramento, Belli, Belli, Brown, Monzione, Fabbro & Zakaria, Melvin E. Belli, Sr., Richard Brown, Wilner, Narwitz, Lewin & Klein, Wilner, Klein, Siegel & Kehr, Walter Klein, Beverly Hills, Sayre, Moreno, Purcell & Boucher and Gilbert L. Purcell, Los Angeles, for petitioners.

No appearance for respondent.

Marlin & Saltzman, Marlin, Saltzman & White, Louis M. Marlin, Stanley D. Saltzman, Morris, Polich & Purdy, Jeffrey S. Barron, Robert S. Wolfe, Anthony G. Brazil, Douglas J. Collodel, Michael S. Wildermeth, Donald L. Ridge, Adams, Duque & Hazeltine, Richard T. Davis, Jr., Jeffrey P. Smith, Berna Warner-Fredman, F. Christopher Chrisbens, Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, C. Douglas Floyd, F. John Nyhan, Anthony R. Delling, Susan A. Kerans, Los Angeles, Gerber & Donaldes, Harvey R. Gerber, Encino, Berchin & Berchin, Eugene C. Berchin and Jerome J. Berchin, Beverly Hills, for real parties in interest.

Horvitz & Levy, Barry R. Levy, Christina J. Imre, Encino, Fred Main, Sacramento, Catherine I. Hansen, San Francisco, Fred J. Hiestand, Sacramento and Richard Denhalter, City Atty., Santa Ciara, as amici curiae on behalf of real parties in interest.

BAXTER, Justice.

We are asked to decide whether persons other than those who contract for the services of mortuaries and crematoria or have the statutory right to direct the disposition of the body of a decedent may recover damages for emotional distress engendered by knowledge of the negligent or intentional mishandling of the decedent's remains when they did not observe the misconduct or its consequences. The Court of Appeal held that close family members may recover damages for the emotional distress they suffer if remains are negligently or intentionally mishandled, and that if the mishandling is intentional all family members and close friends of the deceased may do so.

We agree that the class of persons who may recover for emotional distress negligently caused by the defendants is not limited to those who have the statutory right to control disposition of the remains and those who contract for disposition. The class is not, however, as expansive as that identified by the Court of Appeal. As in all recovery for negligence, the potential plaintiff must be a person to whom the defendant owes a duty recognized by the law. In this context, the duty is owed only to close family members who were aware that funeral and/or crematory services were being performed, and on whose behalf or for whose benefit the services were rendered.

Therefore, and because we also conclude that the individual plaintiffs and the class they seek to represent lack standing to recover on an intentional infliction of emotional distress theory, the judgment of the Court of Appeal must be modified.


This matter arises on review of a ruling on standing to sue made by the trial court in a coordination proceeding. 1 At the trial court's request the parties briefed the question of standing based on the allegations of a designated "model" complaint, selected for the purpose of preliminary rulings from those filed in the coordinated actions. The Court of Appeal treated the ruling as one in the nature of a ruling on a demurrer, 2 accepting the allegations of the In response to plaintiffs' petition for writ of mandate, after issuance of an alternative writ the Court of Appeal directed that a peremptory writ issue to compel the trial court to modify its order to recognize the standing of additional plaintiffs.

[820 P.2d 184] model complaint as true for purposes of this proceeding, and considering whether those allegations stated a cause of action on behalf of all of the individual plaintiffs, and the class the individual plaintiffs sought to represent. 3

We agree with the Court of Appeal that the ruling, although described as one on standing, was in the nature of a ruling on a demurrer inasmuch as the effect was to determine whether all of the plaintiffs and the plaintiff class had stated a cause or causes of action for which each could recover emotional distress damages. We address the issues as having been raised in that context.

The model complaint defined the plaintiff class as one consisting of surviving spouses, relatives, and designated representatives of decedents whose remains had been mishandled by defendants. The individual plaintiffs who seek to represent the class are persons within the class who have the right and responsibility for handling, and the right to custody and possession of their decedents' remains, and possess or may acquire the right under section 7100 of the Health and Safety Code 4 to control disposition of the remains, and/or contracted for defendants' services, paid for the services, or represent the estates of persons who did so. 5

All of the individual plaintiffs and members of the plaintiff class as described in the model complaint are, therefore, contracting parties and/or relatives of decedents whose remains were allegedly mishandled. 6

The defendants fall into two principal classes designated by plaintiffs as the "mortuary" defendants and the "crematory" defendants. The mortuary defendants allegedly undertook to, contracted to, and agreed to provide funeral-related services for the benefit of plaintiffs, and to accomplish the cremation of the remains of plaintiffs' decedents "with the dignity and respect due them in accordance with Plaintiffs' and decedents' wishes, in keeping with public sensibilities, and in accordance with the law." The mortuary defendants contracted with the crematory defendants for cremation of the remains.

The crematory defendants, who represented that they would perform cremations in a dignified and respectful manner, provided forms authorizing cremation to the mortuary defendants to enable the latter to obtain consent from the next of kin whose business the mortuary defendants solicited on behalf of both themselves and the crematory defendants.

The mortuary defendants knew, or should have known, of the illegal and improper practices of the crematory defendants.

The remaining defendants, Carolina Biological Supply Company and its agent William G. Gabriel, residents of North Carolina (collectively, the Carolina defendants), allegedly requested and purchased human organs and body parts from the crematory defendants. The Carolina defendants failed to seek review of an earlier order of the trial court overruling their demurrer, and did not seek review of the Court of Appeal ruling on the standing of a subclass of plaintiffs who seek recovery from the Carolina defendants. In that ruling, the Court of Appeal held that only the statutory right holders may recover from the Carolina defendants that, allegedly, purchased bodily organs and parts taken from plaintiffs' decedents by the crematory defendants, and did so under circumstances in which the Carolina defendants knew or should have known that desecration of human remains would necessarily occur. 7

The PFAC seeks relief against members of each class directly and for the acts of others on theories of agency and conspiracy. The events about which plaintiffs complain occurred in the period 1980-1987, but were not discovered by plaintiffs until February 1987, when plaintiffs first learned "from public media reports" that their decedents' remains had been mishandled in the manner alleged in the complaint.

The model complaint alleged that the crematory defendants mishandled and mutilated remains, commingled human remains, and violated sections 7051, 7052, 7054.7, and 7055, as well as Business and Professions Code section 7735, and Penal Code section 487(1).

More specifically, in support of this allegation and one charging that those defendants had "removed and 'harvested,' without authorization or permission, numerous human organs and body parts from plaintiffs' decedents' remains," the complaint alleged that defendants cremated remains in the pottery kiln of defendant Oscar Ceramics; cremated remains in a disrespectful manner; cremated as many as 10 to 15 bodies together at the pottery kiln and multiple bodies at other locations; took and sold gold and other metals from the remains; placed cremated remains in urns or other containers without preserving their integrity or identity; and mutilated decedents' remains "including, but not limited to the unauthorized taking of Plaintiffs' decedents' corneas, eyes, hearts, lungs and other organs, and bones and body parts The mortuary defendants, who had agreed to provide funeral-related services and accomplish cremation of the remains for the benefit of plaintiffs, had contracted with the crematory defendants for services in circumstances in which they knew or should have known that this conduct was occurring or would occur.

[820 P.2d 186] which were sold for Defendants' profit...."

On discovering defendants' misconduct plaintiffs suffered and will continue to suffer "physical injury, shock, outrage, extreme anxiety, worry, mortification, embarrassment, humiliation, distress, grief, and sorrow."

The ninth cause of action, identified as one for "Intentional Interference with Remains and Infliction of Emotional Distress," alleged that the crematory and mortuary defendants had wilfully and deliberately interfered with the rights and duties of the plaintiffs to effect the proper cremation of the remains "by mutilating the remains by 'harvesting' of organs and body...

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