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Martin v. Comfort Touch Transport, Inc.

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

August 31, 2018

Barbara Martin, individually and as personal representative of the Estate of Mattie Anthony, deceased; Shirley Wilbanks; and Rose Anthony, as personal representative of the Estate of Jimmy Anthony, deceased
v.
Comfort Touch Transport, Inc.; Comfort Touch Transport Service, LLC; Jonathan Mellette; Greg Coffey; S.E. Combined Service of Alabama d/b/a Valhalla Funeral Home; and SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC

          Appeal from Madison Circuit Court (CV-14-902383)

          DONALDSON, Judge.

         Barbara Martin, individually and as personal representative of the estate of Mattie Anthony, deceased; Shirley Wilbanks; and Rose Anthony, as personal representative of the estate of Jimmy Anthony, deceased (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the plaintiffs"), appeal from a summary judgment entered by the Madison Circuit Court ("the trial court") in favor of Comfort Touch Transport, Inc., and Comfort Touch Transport Service, LLC (hereinafter referred to collectively as "Comfort Touch"); Jonathan Mellette and Greg Coffey (Comfort Touch, Mellette, and Coffey are hereinafter referred to collectively as "the Comfort Touch defendants"); and S.E. Combined Service of Alabama d/b/a Valhalla Funeral Home ("Valhalla") and SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the Valhalla defendants"). For the reasons discussed herein, we reverse the judgment insofar as it pertains to the negligence claim asserted against the Comfort Touch defendants and affirm the judgment insofar as it pertains to remaining claims asserted against the Comfort Touch defendants and the claims asserted against the Valhalla defendants.

         Facts and Procedural History

         This case arises from claims based on alleged postmortem injuries to the body of Mattie Anthony ("the decedent"), which included a puncture wound and abrasions on the decedent's head. Martin, Wilbanks, and Jimmy Anthony are the decedent's children; Jimmy died during the pendency of the proceedings below. On November 26, 2014, some of the plaintiffs commenced an action in the trial court against the Comfort Touch defendants and the Valhalla defendants, asserting claims of negligence, wantonness, the tort of outrage, fraud and suppression, trespass, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract.[1]

         The Valhalla defendants and the Comfort Touch defendants separately moved for a summary judgment. In support of their motion, the Valhalla defendants presented deposition testimony of Valhalla employees, Comfort Touch employees, the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs' expert witness, and a medical examiner. The Comfort Touch defendants, in support of their summary-judgment motion, submitted deposition testimony of Comfort Touch employees, Barbara Martin, a medical examiner, the decedent's family physician, and the plaintiffs' expert witness. The plaintiffs responded in opposition and also filed a motion for a partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, asserting that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied with respect to their negligence claim, to which they attached deposition testimony of Comfort Touch employees, a Valhalla employee, a medical examiner, and Barbara Martin, and also photographs of the decedent.

         The materials submitted in support of and in opposition to the motions for a summary judgment show that on July 12, 2014, the decedent died at the home of her daughter, Barbara Martin. The decedent had entered into a contract for postmortem services with Valhalla, which is owned by SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC. Comfort Touch is an organization that provides postmortem transportation services. Valhalla was notified of the decedent's death. In response, Jonathan Mellette and Greg Coffey of Comfort Touch arrived at the decedent's home to transport her body to the Valhalla funeral home.

         Mellette, the Comfort Touch employee who transported the decedent's body, testified that Comfort Touch provides transport services for multiple funeral homes in a specific geographic area and also transfers bodies from local funeral homes to out-of-state funeral homes. He testified that he began working for Comfort Touch in 2013 and that he received on-the-job training by accompanying other Comfort Touch employees for approximately one week. Mellette stated that Comfort Touch supplied him with a minivan, a cot, gloves, and various supplies, and that Comfort Touch paid for the gas used for transport services. Mellette added that the minivan used to transport bodies does not have any markings or insignia indicating the nature of the services provided. Mellette further testified that Dignity Memorial, Inc., a nationwide organization that had owned Valhalla at some point, had provided a training seminar that demonstrated how to properly fill out the paperwork for the funeral homes owned by Dignity Memorial, Inc.

         Mellette testified that, when he arrived at the decedent's home, Coffey was discussing an informational packet from Valhalla with the family. Mellette introduced himself, said he was from Valhalla, and went over the forms the family had to sign.

         Mellette testified that he retrieved a cot, which is adjustable and on wheels, to transport the decedent's body to the minivan. Mellette stated that he did not inspect the decedent's body and that he did not know whether she had any marks or bruises on her body at the time. Mellette testified that he and Coffey tied a sheet around the decedent's body, lifted her, placed her on the cot, covered her body with a quilt, and wheeled the cot out of the house without incident. Mellette also testified that he rolled the cot into the minivan and that the legs of the cot automatically retract so that the cot rolls straight into the minivan. According to Mellette, the minivan is equipped with "divets" in the floor that serve as a locking mechanism for the cot.

         Mellette testified that he delivered the decedent's body directly to the Valhalla funeral home and that he did not encounter any accidents, bumps, hard turns, or anything out of the ordinary while transporting the body. When Mellette arrived at the Valhalla funeral home, he opened the garage door, opened the embalming area, removed the cot from the minivan, and rolled the cot into the embalming area. Mellette then transferred the decedent's body from the cot to the embalming table and signed a document indicating that delivery of the body had been made. Mellette testified that no Valhalla employees were present when he delivered the decedent's body to the funeral home.

         Mellette testified that, upon arriving at the Valhalla funeral home, he noticed a "small amount of blood or something on the sheet" covering the decedent, but he could not recall if there was blood on the quilt. Materials submitted to the trial court showed that, in a previous statement to law-enforcement officers, Mellette had stated that there was blood on the quilt when he delivered the body. The record shows that, at the funeral home, the decedent's body had a small, puncture-type wound on the right temple and a small abrasion injury on the forehead.

         Coffey, the other Comfort Touch employee who had helped remove the decedent's body from her house, testified that he did not notice any marks or bruising on the decedent's face before her body was moved. Coffey stated that nothing occurred to the body while he was with the decedent's body at the home. Coffey did not transport the body to the Valhalla funeral home. Coffey testified that, although he had no idea how the body could have been injured during the transport process, he could speculate that "a number of things could have happened." Coffey also testified that bodies can shift during the transportation process, even when secured properly, due to the natural decomposition of a body after death.

         Jeff Huggins, the Valhalla embalmer, testified that, when he first encountered the decedent's body, he noticed a "large amount" of blood on the sheet covering the body. Huggins testified that the blood was "saturated" on the sheet around the decedent's head and was approximately the size of a basketball. Huggins discovered that the decedent had a small, puncture-type wound on the right temple and a small abrasion injury on her forehead. When he began the embalming, blood continued to come out of the puncture wound. Materials submitted to the trial court indicate that Huggins told law-enforcement officers that he suspected that the decedent had been involved in a motor-vehicle accident due to the amount of blood on the sheets.

         Barbara Martin, the decedent's daughter, testified that she had provided care for the decedent as her health declined over the last four to five years of her life and that she was with the decedent when she died. Martin testified that a hospice nurse notified Valhalla after the decedent died, and Martin believed that Mellette and Coffey were Valhalla employees. Martin testified that, before Mellette and Coffey arrived, the decedent's body had no bruising or injuries. Martin testified that Mellette and Coffey told her they were in a hurry because they had another body to transport. Martin also testified that Mellette and Coffey placed a dirty blanket over the decedent's body. Martin stated that, when Coffey and Mellette brought the body out of the house on the cot, "you could see her [body] moving" on the cot, and Martin said that she told them to be careful with the decedent's body. Martin testified that Mellette and Coffey "shoved [the body] in" the minivan and that the shove "was so rough that my sister and I turned and looked at each other like what are you doing?" Martin testified that Mellette was driving fast when he drove away from the home in the minivan with the body and that he "slung a lot of gravel."

         Martin was informed by Mellette or Coffey that Valhalla would contact her the following day (Sunday) to schedule a time for the family to come to the Valhalla funeral home to make the final funeral arrangements. According to Martin, she telephoned Valhalla at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday and was told that all the employees were busy and that it would be Monday before she could come to the funeral home to make arrangements.

         On Monday, July 14, 2014, Martin, the other plaintiffs, and other family members attended an "arrangements" conference at the Valhalla funeral home. According to Martin, she asked to see the decedent's body and Valhalla employees tried to dissuade her from viewing the body. When asked whether she requested to view the decedent's body when she called on Sunday, Martin testified: "I was requesting to come out and --I mean, I was -- I can't remember if I said I want to view the body, but I knew when I went out there I was going to." When asked what damage or injury she suffered during the 24-hour period between Sunday and Monday when she had to wait to view the decedent's body, Martin testified that it was "just the anticipation of having to wait" and it was "irritating."

         Martin testified that, when she and other plaintiffs saw the decedent's body on Monday, the decedent's head "was cracked open and bruised all down the side and scratches and all the way down her arm and -- her hand even looked like it was broken." According to Martin, Valhalla employees told her that the decedent's body was in that condition upon arrival at the funeral home. Valhalla employee Beverly Burch provided an affidavit stating that this was the first occasion that the Valhalla defendants learned that the decedent's body was not in the same condition as it had been when it was retrieved from Martin's residence.

         Martin asserted that Valhalla should have called the family upon seeing the decedent in that condition and knowing that she had been transported from her home. Martin testified that Valhalla employees also told Martin that "things happen" to the body during the embalming process. Martin claimed that the person described as the manager of Valhalla told Martin and the family that "he could make things right."

         Martin testified that, after viewing the decedent's body, she and other family members contacted a local law-enforcement agency and the agency began an investigation. The law-enforcement agency contacted Dr. Valerie Green, a physician and medical examiner, who viewed the body and advised that she would need to perform an autopsy to obtain more information about the body. The plaintiffs declined to permit an autopsy to be conducted on the body.

         Martin testified that she continues to experience anger and depression, that she is no longer able to provide for her family by cooking or "taking care of things," that she has nightmares, and that she feels "like it just has destroyed [her] way of life."

         Dr. Stacy Ikard, who met with the plaintiffs on two occasions to evaluate their mental states, opined that the grief issues suffered by the plaintiffs were more than what would be typical for a person experiencing the loss of his or her mother. Ikard testified, however, that she could not say for certain how the plaintiffs would have grieved if the trauma of seeing the decedent's injured body with the head wounds had not occurred, but, she said, the trauma of witnessing the decedent's body in that condition "complicate[s] their grief moving forward."

         Dr. Green, the physician and medical examiner, testified that she was asked to view the areas of concern on the decedent's head at the request of a local law-enforcement agency. Dr. Green observed a puncture wound and an abrasion on the decedent's forehead area. Dr. Green testified that she could not conclusively determine what had caused the abrasion on the decedent's head, but she suspected that the abrasion could have come from the decedent's head rubbing on the bar on the cot during the transportation process. ...


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