600-pound cross fell, injured child at Cambria cemetery, lawsuit says

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJune 26, 2014 

A 600-pound stone cross in the cemetery at Old Santa Rosa Chapel in Cambria allegedly fell onto and seriously injured a child in August 2012, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

BERT ETLING — betling@thetribunenews.com

The parents of a 7-year-old boy are suing Santa Rosa Cemetery in Cambria, saying the boy’s pelvis was crushed when a tombstone at the cemetery fell on him.

The lawsuit, filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Wednesday, seeks an unspecified amount of damages.

According to the suit and the plaintiff’s attorney, Willem Wijsen, then 5, was visiting the historic cemetery with his mother in August 2012, when a heavy granite cross fell off its stone base and onto the boy.

“The pictures of his injuries are pretty traumatic,” said Steven Roberts, representing the family. “If it had hit him in the head, we’d have a wrongful death case.”

After the grave marker landed on him, Willem was in the hospital for several weeks and had to be placed in a full body cast, Roberts said.

“He’s lucky that he’s walking again,” he said.

The boy’s mother, Susannah Wijsen, is originally from Los Osos and used to visit the cemetery with her family, Roberts said. Today, she and her family live in Contra Costa County.

A manager at the Old Mission Cemetery, which cares for Santa Rosa Cemetery and others in the county, referred questions to Deacon Warren Hoy of the Diocese of Monterey. Hoy did not return calls to The Tribune on Thursday.

Roberts declined to say whose name was on the tombstone.

“The people that own it are still alive,” he said.

The marker, he said, is about four feet high and features a 600-pound stone cross on a stone base. At the time, he said, the cross was glued to the base.

“We didn’t think the glue was ever appropriate,” he said.

The stone has since been repaired with bolts now connecting the cross and base.

The suit, filed by Willem’s father, Mark Wijsen, names the Old Mission Cemetery, Catholic Church of Cambria, Old Santa Rosa Chapel and Community Cemetery and the Old Santa Rosa Church. More defendants could be added in the future, Roberts said.

The boy was not pushing on the cross when it collapsed, he said, though that would not make the cemetery less liable.

“You’ve got a very heavy cross just balancing on its base,” he said.

Tombstone-related accidents are more common on the East Coast, Roberts said, because many cemeteries there are older and have more aged grave markers. But two years ago, a suit was filed regarding a similar accident in Paso Robles.

In that case, 4-year-old Heather Wolcott was visiting Paso Robles Cemetery with her mother when a 100-year-old tombstone fell off its base and landed on the girl’s leg.

The girl suffered a broken ankle.

Attorney James McKiernan, who represented the girl’s family in the lawsuit that followed, could not be reached Thursday. But Roberts said the plaintiffs won their suit against the Paso Robles Cemetery District.

Other cases involving fallen tombstones nationwide have had more serious outcomes. In 2012, a 4-year-old boy visiting a cemetery in Park City, Utah, with his father was killed when the metal connecting a 6-foot, century-old headstone to its base snapped, causing the stone to land on the boy. In North Carolina four months earlier, a 4-year-old girl was killed as she sat at a cemetery with other children in her vacation Bible school. In that case, a 1,000-pound cross slab fell off its base and landed on the girl.

The Cambria cemetery sits behind a chapel built in 1870. The graveyard, once visited by celebrities such as William Randolph Hearst, Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby, features three Oscar winners (for sound), in addition to some of the town’s founding members.

While it features many old tombstones, some made of wood, it also includes more modern tombstones, including the one that injured Willem.

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