Nancy and James Cartia v. Winton Cemetery District & Gateway Memorial Inc.

Nov 2017 13 | Posted by liz.smith

By Mark R. Velasquez, Esq.
Hunt Jeppson & Griffin, LLP

On August 31, 2015, while James and Nancy Cartia were visiting the gravesite of James Cartia’s deceased wife and daughter at the Winton Cemetery, James Cartia tripped on some grass and fell into his wife and daughter’s headstone knocking it over and onto Nancy Cartia.  The headstone was installed in 1990 by Mae’s Memorial Co., and had been secured with glue.  The headstone had never been re-glued, and there had never been any complaints or reports of it being loose before the accident.

Nancy Cartia suffered multiple fractures to her right leg, damage to the cartilage in her right knee, and a fractured right wrist.   She had complications while in the hospital, and needed approximately five surgeries to repair her leg and wrist.  While in the hospital, Nancy suffered hospital psychosis, and contracted several infections. Nancy claimed to need a total knee replacement in the near future, and assistance for the rest of her life due to reduced mobility and pain in her leg.

The Cartias sued Gateway Memorial Inc. for negligence, and sued the Winton Cemetery District on the theory of Dangerous Condition of Public Property, pursuant to Government Code section 835.  As against Winton Cemetery District, Plaintiffs alleged the headstone was dangerous because they believe the glue had failed before the accident, and that the cemetery had a unreasonable inspection system. Gateway Memorial Inc. was dismissed from the lawsuit before trial.  The Cartias initially demanded $25 million, but in settlement discussions indicated they would accept $2.4 million.  At trial, they asked the jury for $10 million for Nancy Cartia, and $1 million for James Cartia. The lawsuit itself lasted one year and four months, and cost approximately $500,000 to defend, and required every employee and three trustees to testify at depositions and trial.

On September 1, 2017, after 10 days of trial, a Merced County jury voted unanimously that the Winton Cemetery District was not liable, because the Cartias’ headstone was not in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident. 

Why This Case Was Important

First, winning the case continues to show that it is difficult to prove that a headstone is a dangerous condition.  Second, winning the case makes it easier to get a dismissal or settle these types of cases in the future.  Had the jury found that the headstone was a dangerous condition then it would have encouraged anyone injured by a headstone to pursue a lawsuit and seek a lot of money.  It would also have made it harder to defend and settle these types of cases, and it would have most likely increased insurance rates for all public cemeteries.

What The Case Does Not Stand For:

First, it is important to know that the case is not legal precedent.  Only cases from the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court can be used as precedent in future cases.  Second, the case does not stand for the proposition that all headstones are not a dangerous condition.  Whether or not a particular headstone is a dangerous condition depends upon the facts of each case.   For example, in this case the District re-glued all of the headstones that it found or were reported loose immediately.  Would the case have turned out differently had the cemetery knew that the headstone was loose, but didn’t do anything about it?  In this case the District had conducted a physical inspection of every headstone two months before the accident.  Would the case have turned out differently had they never done an inspection?  In this case Plaintiff’s own glue expert testified in his deposition that the glue was actually working at the time of the accident.  Would the case have turned out differently had their glue expert testified that the glue had failed years before the accident?

Lawyers will often say that different facts make for a different case.  While the jury agreed in this case that a headstone, even if unsecured, was not a dangerous condition another jury with a different set of facts might find otherwise.  Therefore, it is helpful to review your District’s policies and procedures as it relates to the law of Dangerous Condition of Public property.  I will be presenting a review of the law of Dangerous Conditions of Public Property at the next convention.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature, and is not intended to serve as legal advice or as a guarantee, warranty or prediction regarding the outcome of any particular legal matter. The information on these web pages is subject to change at any time and may be incomplete and/or may contain errors. You should not rely on these pages without first consulting a qualified attorney.