Fort Worth mortuary sued for mishandling body
09/05/2014 10:34 AM
09/05/2014 6:50 PM
This article contains graphic descriptions.
The owners of the defunct Johnson Family Mortuary, where eight bodies were discovered in advanced stages of decomposition, are being sued for more than $1 million by a family whose loved one’s remains were found inside.
Relatives of Karen Jones, who died in the spring and was supposed to be cremated, say in the lawsuit that they didn’t know that the ashes they eventually received from the mortuary were not actually her cremains until after police were called in to investigate in July.
Jones’ son, Michael, and two of her sisters, Lana Adewusi and Connie Mabray, filed the lawsuit in Tarrant County civil court Thursday. Named in the suit are the mortuary’s owners, twin brothers Derrick and Dondre Johnson and Rachel Hardy-Johnson, Dondre’s wife.
The Johnsons are accused of deceptive trade practices, negligence and fraud. In the lawsuit, Jones’ relatives seek not only the $3,025 they paid for the funeral and cremation but also money to pay for psychiatric care and counseling.
Conditions in the east Fort Worth mortuary became national news in mid-July after the landlord went to the supposedly vacant funeral home to evict the tenants for not paying rent. After he found the remains, Fort Worth police and the Tarrant County medical examiner were called in.
Nearby residents said they could smell foul odors coming from the building.
Dondre Johnson and Rachel Hardy-Johnson were arrested and face seven charges each of abuse of a corpse, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a punishment of a year in jail.
They were released after posting bail of $10,500 each. The remains had to be identified by the medical examiner’s office.
“It’s horrible. It’s tragic,” said Andrew Seibert, the attorney for the Jones family.
He wrote in the lawsuit that the plaintiffs “sustained a high degree of mental pain and distress” because of the knowingly deceptive acts of the funeral home operators.
In a statement from Seibert in which he described the Johnsons’ actions as “callous, thoughtless and despicable,” Jones’ relatives asked that their privacy be respected while they “endure this horrifying ordeal.”
Attempts by the Star-Telegram to reach members of the Johnson family were unsuccessful.
According to Jones’ family, Karen Jones’ express desire was to be cremated “as she found the idea of decomposition of the body and all of the things associated with that revolting and repellent.” Adewusi and Mabray made that known as they met with employees at the funeral home.
The first sign that something was amiss occurred during Karen Jones’ public viewing. Attendees reportedly noticed that her body seemed to be discharging fluids from her skin and mouth. The body was also not cold as expected, the lawsuit says.
When that was brought to the attention of an employee, identified in the lawsuit only as “Willie,” his recommendation was that the Jones family not have any more contact with the body. His solution was to “blot the decedent’s skin and body with paper towels,” according to the lawsuit.
Willie blamed the overuse of embalming fluid, a procedure that he said was done at another facility. Shortly after the visitation, the family was given a black box that reportedly held Karen Jones’ cremains.
Not until the medical examiner identified Jones’ body were the family’s “fears” confirmed. Authorities, who said Karen Jones died of unspecified natural causes, requested that the family return the black box.
Officials with the Texas Funeral Commission have said that bodies must be maintained at 34 to 40 degrees, or be embalmed or encased in a container that ensures against the seepage of fluids and the escape of odors.
They also said that a funeral home without its own refrigeration room will often contract with an embalming service or a crematorium that has one.
Seibert said to call what happened to Karen Jones ironic would be an understatement since she was so explicit about her desire to be cremated.
“I had the family in my office in tears,” Seibert said. “Every part of this is so bad, and to hear that on top of everything else is incredible.”
The attorney said he also finds the Johnsons’ comments after the discovery of the bodies “bewildering.” The Johnsons have never acknowledged that they had a problem, he said, and they haven’t responded to any of his attempts to contact them, forcing the family to sue.
“They’ve never said they were sorry and never expressed any culpability or regret,” Seibert said.
Karen Jones’ remains were finally cremated by the Emerald Hills Funeral Home in Kennedale at no additional cost to the family.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
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