Assistant District Attorney Drew Robinson is handling the case against the Lawrence Group of Dallas, Ga., the owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum at 7180 North Lee Highway, and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens at 1700 South Ocoee St.
The DA’s office received 50-plus signatures by petition in March after ADA Steven Hatchett announced possible legal action. The petition of 5 percent of lot owners, or 10 lot owners and their next of kin, whichever is fewer, was required to file the complaint.
The petitioners claimed that Cecil Lawrence Inc. failed to properly maintain the grounds and graves, according to the complaint. The petitioners allege the company failed to cut the grass, rake and clean cemetery plots at reasonable intervals, or repair and preserve drains, water lines, roads, buildings, fences and other structures, including cemetery-owned statues.
Tennessee Code requires cemetery owners to "maintain its cemeteries so as to reflect respect for the memory of the dead in keeping with the reasonable sensibilities of survivors of those whose remains are interred in such cemeteries."
Furthermore, state law requires companies selling lots, grave spaces, crypts, niches and burial rights to establish and forever maintain an improvement care trust fund for each separate cemetery.
The complaint asks the chancellor to appoint one or more lot owners or survivors as a plot-owners committee to contract for regular maintenance and order the company to pay maintenance costs.
Robinson said the Lawrence Group has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.
“All we want them to do is provide upkeep of the cemeteries,” he said. “The people of Cleveland and Bradley County deserve cemeteries that are respectful of their loved ones.”
Maintenance at Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum has been the object of complaints and news stories since March 2011 when John McGowan complained of heavy tractors used to dig new graves. He said the equipment left ruts in graves and knocked down bronze vases. Outriggers used to stabilize the backhoe cracked some of the headstones.
“Nothing has changed,” McGowan said Wednesday.
If asked, he said he would serve on the plot-owners committee.
Ralph Buckner Jr. of Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory, complained to Burial Services of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance in July 2012. He filed the complaint after a bronze vendor emailed him photos of the three mausoleums showing leakage spilling onto the carpeted floor. Several light fixtures were either burned out or broken, a single-window air-conditioning unit was broken and the only ventilation came from two box fans. In addition; the roof leaked, there was a broken window and the interior was generally dirty.
In response to Buckner’s complaint, the company submitted a plan of action to Burial Services, which the agency deemed sufficient to address those concerns.
Lawrence wrote in his response to the findings from the state regulatory agency that the “reason for the leak was the crypt was sealed with plywood; the plywood disintegrated and caused the crypt to leak. It should be noted that the crypt was sealed before Cecil Lawrence Inc. took over operations. The crypt was sealed July 28, 1987.”
The Lawrence Group bought Sunset and Hilcrest cemeteries during bankruptcy proceedings in about 2002.
In September 2012, the Lawrence Group was assessed the largest ever civil penalty issued by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Burial Services program.
Over a two-year period in 2008 and 2009, the company made at least 20 withdrawals totaling $1.77 million from the Sunset and Hilcrest cemetery perpetual trust funds. The Lawrence Group agreed to pay $267,450 from four final orders from the state. Of that amount, $114,000 was paid directly to the improvement care funds, and $151,000 was a civil penalty paid to the department. The Lawrence Group also repaid the two trusts.
Tennessee Code states in part, “As to matters within its reasonable control, a cemetery company shall maintain its cemeteries so as to reflect respect for the memory of the dead in keeping with the reasonable sensibilities of survivors of those whose remains are interred in the cemeteries.”
Lawrence Group CEO Dale Lawrence was unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.