MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) - A Mobile man, who appealed an order to abide by a funeral home’s arbitration clause, has to accept the contract terms he originally agreed to after a dispute arising from the alleged mishandling of his wife’s cremation, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled last month.
According to the high court's opinion, in 2015, Robert Newell sued SCI Alabama Funeral Services LLC in Mobile Circuit Court. He claimed that in 2013 SCI failed to retrieve and promptly cremate his wife’s remains, thus invalidating an arbitration clause that was already unreasonable and unfairly favored SCI in the event of violations.
Newell originally requested his spouse’s body be sent to Mobile Memorial Gardens Funeral Home after Lisa passed on Nov. 21, 2013, but her remains were sent to Radney Funeral Home instead.
Court documents stated Richard Johnson, an employee of Mobile Memorial, told Newell that Radney Funeral Home was now part of the Dignity Memorial network of funeral homes, of which Mobile Memorial was a part, and his wife’s remains were sent there because it has a crematory service. SCI Alabama Funeral Services LLC then became the parent company of both funeral homes.
Newell claimed the funeral home then asked him a series of insensitive questions about Lisa’s arrangements, further distressing him. Because Johnson promised to have Lisa’s ashes returned in five to 10 days, Newell declined embalmment. He alleges he didn’t hear from Mobile Memorial nor did it return his calls.
So, on Dec. 4, 2013, Newell went to the funeral home, where Johnson told him they had not received Lisa’s death certificate. Newell’s sister had to re-identify Lisa’s remains because he became too distraught over the potential state of her body. He received her ashes on Dec. 6, 2013.
Newell sued SCI in 2015 for negligence, wantonness, tort of outrage and fraud.
SCI moved the court to compel arbitration per its contract in March 2016.
The circuit court upheld SCI’s right to arbitration because its contract had a mandatory and binding clause that precluded Newell from the right to a court or jury trial and any appeal. Newell petitioned the appellate court, arguing the arbitration provision was unconscionable, unfairly favored SCI and violated public policy.
The court ruled the arbitration provision did not give SCI any overwhelming bargaining power or violated any public policy, nor was there evidence that SCI attempted to limit Newell’s negotiation of the service agreement before signing it.
In the Supreme Court's March 17 ruling, Justice Michael Bolin acknowledged the emotional and difficult circumstances surrounding the case but affirmed the trial court’s order for arbitration.
Mobile Circuit Court Case number CV-15-902787