Court upholds right to sue over cemetery

November 06, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Eastern Shore couple who say their dream home is a nightmare built on perhaps two dozen graves can sue the developer's estate, alleging that he committed fraud in hiding a cemetery, the state's highest court said yesterday.

Thomas and Deborah Carven contend that developer Louis J. Hickman bulldozed the visible evidence of a family graveyard outside Bishopville, clearing tombstones, but leaving an estimated 20 to 30 bodies underground.

"They have been saying all along that they did nothing wrong. Well, they did," said Tom Carven.

The Court of Appeals' unanimous ruling returns the bizarre case to Worcester County Circuit Court, where the Carvens, who moved into the house in 1986, will have to convince jurors that the allegations are true and that they have been harmed.

Yesterday's ruling knocked down the Hickman family's legal arguments for dismissing the suit. The ruling said that a law that gives immunity from defects discovered more than 20 years after property is improved does not apply in this case. The law is aimed at protecting builders whose work was considered fine when it was done but two decades later is inadequate.

The high court also said that removing tombstones is unlike adding roads to what had been a 200-acre farm. Streets can be considered property enhancements; bulldozing a cemetery is against the law.

The judges said the law gives cemeteries protections over other land, including regulations for relocating the dead.

"The concealment may have allowed Hickman to sell the land at a higher price, or without the impediments established by law, but this is not what we believe the Legislature intended to regard as an improvement," Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote in the 16-page opinion.

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