Funeral home sues WJZ

Television: $41 million defamation suit follows station's report that March Funeral Homes West mishandled a burial.

October 19, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A prominent Baltimore funeral home has filed a $41 million defamation lawsuit against WJZ, claiming that an investigative report wrongly accused the firm of mishandling a veteran's burial, and was largely based on the widow's dreams.

The suit also claims that WJZ reporter Suzanne Collins refused to grant officials at March Funeral Homes West Inc. enough time to refute the contentions of Enid Costley before the Oct. 11, 1999 broadcast, despite repeated pleas.

The suit, filed last Friday by Baltimore lawyer Walter Nathan Malloy Jr., charges that WJZ "published an irresponsible piece of sensational journalism that was wretched with false statements." March Funeral Homes is seeking $16 million from CBS, WJZ's corporate parent, plus $25 million in punitive damages.

The station's general manager, Jay Newman, declined comment. Collins, a veteran reporter at Channel 13 whose work has won several awards, also refused to be interviewed. "At this time, WJZ has not been officially served with a legal notice," said WJZ spokeswoman Liz Chuday.

According to court records, WJZ anchor Vic Carter promoted the story this way: "A local woman takes extra care for her husband's funeral arrangement but says everything went wrong. Eyewitness News investigates -- and what we found may shock you."

Five family members of William Costley told Collins they saw his coffin slightly ajar when an honor flag was removed from its top at the Maryland State Veterans Cemetery at Garrison Forest, according to the court records. When the coffin was handled by cemetery employees, family members heard a horrible noise, Collins said, "as if the coffin had dropped into the vault bouncing and crashing."

The family was too far away to see into the burial site, but the suit states that Enid Costley told Collins that her husband came to her in a vision and said his body had fallen: "I dreamt him that night, that he came to me and showed me how he felled over." On the broadcast, Enid Costley said she wanted to dig up her husband's grave. In her piece, Collins said that March Funeral Homes promised to investigate whether the coffin was defective, or its handling inappropriate.

In an interview yesterday with The Sun, Kenneth McKisset, superintendent of the veterans cemetery, said state safety regulations prevent family members from observing burials close to the site. "My men lowered the casket into the liner, put the lid on, and the whole thing is lowered down into the actual grave, and they closed it up," McKisset said.

Two days after the initial broadcast, McKisset and the March Funeral Home arranged to uncover William Costley's casket in the presence of Costley and a reporter. According to the lawsuit, WJZ reporter Alex Demetrick recounted on air, "The family was brought up to look inside -- what they saw were roses on top of a closed casket -- and a lid that was locked tight enough to withstand testing by a worker."

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