Family sues cemetery over prepaid policies

Woman says her mother and son were buried in cheaper vaults and charged for services that were already settled

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJanuary 6, 2013 

San Luis Cemetery staff lift one of the Jonsin family’s coffins out of the ground to determine whether it was buried in the correct type of vault. It was buried in a concrete vault instead of stainless steel.

COURTESY PHOTO

After the graves of her mother and son were unearthed, a San Luis Obispo woman filed suit in the fall against a local cemetery, claiming the cemetery deceived her and scammed her deceased mother.

Janice Jonsin will appear in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Thursday for a pretrial hearing. She is seeking punitive and compensatory damages against San Luis Cemetery and its owner, Leland Smith, over prepaid policies she claims were altered and ignored.

When contacted by The Tribune, Smith declined to comment. His attorney, Tom Minehan, didn’t want to comment because the case is in litigation, though he did email a statement.

“My clients made an innocent mistake for which they are truly sorry,” he wrote. “The mistake was corrected and the plaintiff was reimbursed for all out-of-pocket loss before this lawsuit was filed.”

Claims made in civil suits only present one side of the story.

According to the suit, the following occurred:

In 1998 and 1999, Shirley Jonsin purchased burial policies from Lady Family Sutcliffe Cemetery and Mausoleum, on South Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo, for herself and several members of her family. The purchases included a stainless-steel vault for herself and a stainless-steel vault, copper casket and headstone for her grandson, Jonn Jonsin.

Smith purchased the cemetery in 2001 and changed the name to San Luis Cemetery. Nine years later, Shirley Jonsin passed away at the age of 91 and was buried at the plot she had purchased.

A year later, Jonn Jonsin, 48, died of a heart attack. While handling burial services, his mother, Janice Jonsin, paid about $9,500 for a vault and casket, unaware that her mother had previously purchased them for her son.

When Janice Jonsin learned that her mother had prepaid for Jonn Jonsin’s headstone, she suspected her mother had paid for other items as well and sought her mother’s original paperwork. It was then that she discovered that the cemetery was charging her for items already purchased.

Janice Jonsin contacted the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which investigated the case and also found that Shirley Jonsin had been buried in a different, cheaper vault than the one she had purchased.

Last May, Janice Jonsin authorized the disinterment of both her mother and son, which confirmed that both Shirley and Jonn Jonson had been buried in cheaper, concrete vaults. Both were reburied in more expensive vaults as family members watched. But by then, Janice Jonsin’s attorney said, the damage was done.

“My client said that was the worst day of her life,” said Louis Koory of the Mission Law Center.

Shirley Jonsin had been very particular about the purchases she’d made.

“Janice’s mother paid for a Cadillac and got a Yugo,” Koory said. “And the cemetery collected the money for the Cadillac.”

When Shirley Jonsin was removed from her grave, Koory said, the family could see the results of a cheaper vault.

“There’s moisture and roots and everything else that penetrated the vault,” he said.

The prepaid money, Koory said, was held in a trust until Shirley Jonsin died, at which point the money was paid out. Then the cemetery gave her a cheaper product. And when Jonn Jonsin died, the cemetery collected money both from his trust and Janice Jonsin.

At the time of his death, Jonn Jonsin worked as an independent contractor delivering The Tribune.

The cemetery was fined $1,000 by the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau of the Department of Consumer Affairs.

If the case goes to a trial, a jury would decide how much Janice Jonsin is owed if it finds Smith negligible.

To justify punitive damages, Koory would have to convince a jury that Smith intentionally misled Janice Jonsin.

Any money awarded to his client would go into a family trust established by Shirley Jonsin, Koory said.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service