Federal Appeals Court Dismisses Negligence, Emotional Distress Lawsuit Against Georgia Cemetery

In September 2002, Yahazia Odelia purchased two side-by-side plots from a cemetery in DeKalb, Georgia. The plots were known as Space 15 and Space 16, respectively. Odelia buried her sister in pace 16 and reserved Space 15 for her mother when her time came.

When Odelia’s mother passed away in 2016, Odelia was shocked to learn that the cemetery had re-sold Space 15 to another family in April 2005, who buried one of their loved ones in the plot previously reserved for Odelia’s mother. As you might expect, Odelia was not happy about this and took legal action.

In April 2016, a Georgia judge ordered the cemetery to disinter the remains of the person buried in Space 15 and to make that space available for the burial of Odelia’s mother, as they were contractually obligated to do in the first place. Odelia was finally able to bury her mother next to her sister in June 2017.

Meanwhile, Odelia attempted to settle her other outstanding legal claims against the cemetery. When negotiations failed, she filed a new lawsuit in Georgia state court in February 2018. The cemetery later removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment, which the judge granted.

Odelia v. Alderwoods (Georgia) LLC

On August 5, 2020, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion in Odelia v. Alderwoods (Georgia) LLC, in which a three-judge panel affirmed the trial judge’s ruling in favor of the cemetery. Among other issues, the appeals court rejected Odelia’s claims for damages due to the cemetery’s alleged “negligence” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Odelia argued she was entitled to negligence damages under the exceptions to Georgia’s “economic loss rule.” Normally, the economic loss rule provides that a person cannot recover negligence damages based on a breach of contract, as was the case here. There are two recognized exceptions to this rule. The first covers “accidents” in which a “sudden and calamitous event” creates an “unreasonable risk of injury to persons and other property.” The second addresses situations where the defendant makes an intentional “misrepresentation” to the plaintiff.

Neither exception applied here, the 11th Circuit said. Although the cemetery may have inadvertently re-sold Odelia’s burial plot to another customer, this was not the sort of “accident” covered by the exception, as the resale did not create “an unreasonable risk of danger to [Odelia] or to her property.” As for the misrepresentation exception, that did not apply because the cemetery did not falsely represent the status of the burial plot when it was sold to Odelia–the problem was that the cemetery re-sold the same plot afterwards.

Separately, the appeals court also dismissed Odelia’s claim for damages based on “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Georgia law does recognize such injuries, but they require proof of “outrageous” or “egregious” misconduct. The 11th Circuit said the cemetery’s actions here did not rise to either of those standards. While Odelia no doubt had an “unpleasant experience in attempting to bury her mother,” the Court nevertheless concluded there was no “willful or wanton” conduct on the part of the cemetery.

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