The civil allegations against the Montrose County coroner and his office do not bear up under scrutiny, a May 2 motion for dismissal contends.
Dr. Thomas Canfield and the coroner’s office are among several defendants ensnared in a lawsuit brought by 64 people concerning the now defunct Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors.
Canfield has been falsely linked to an alleged “scheme” to illegally obtain and dispose of body parts, the dismissal motion says.
The complaint against him offers “conclusory” allegations that Canfield created policies to send more bodies Sunset Mesa’s way, without supporting facts, defense attorneys Eric Ziporin and Joseph Williams wrote in the motion.
The multi-party litigation, Espinoza et. al., was filed over the alleged mishandling of the remains of 48 decedents. The complaint makes various claims against several defendants relating to fraud and racketeering and body “trafficking.” It and three other civil suits have alleged Sunset Mesa’s owner dismembered decedents, then sold bodies and body parts without the knowledge or consent of next of kin.
Sunset Mesa is separately under FBI investigation. The agency has not publicly disclosed the nature of the probe. The funeral home and crematory, along with the associated business, Donor Services Inc., shut down after the FBI served warrants in 2018.
Owner Megan Hess, who is named along with her parents in the Espinoza litigation, had her state registrations suspended, then agreed to permanently surrender them.
She denies the state’s allegations, as well as the allegations in the four lawsuits.
Ziporin and Williams state in their May 2 filing that all claims made against Canfield and the coroner’s office in Espinoza, et. al., are barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act and neither of those defendants has waived immunity.
The plaintiffs alleged Canfield and his office aided and abetted a body-trafficking scheme. The complaint says the Montrose County Coroner’s Office was informed in 2016 that Hess was returning to families something other than cremains, but he continued to direct other families to use Sunset Mesa for arrangements, in order to keep the alleged body supply flowing.
Prior to the suit being filed, Canfield had denied allegations that he was deliberately directing business to Sunset Mesa. He suspended the funeral from his call rotation after the FBI’s 2018 raid and, according to the May 2 motion, did not know of any potentially illegal conduct at Sunset Mesa prior to that time.
The motion lays out when and how the coroner’s office becomes involved after a death:
The office only responds to deaths that are sudden, that are unattended by a medical professional, or that are violent in nature.
In such deaths “the selection of the funeral home is determined by the family,” Ziporin and Williams wrote.
If the family doesn’t select a funeral home, the coroner’s office activates a rotation list on file at the sheriff’s office.
“Dr. Canfield has never provided a recommendation for a funeral home to a family of a decedent. Contrary to the allegations in the complaint, Dr. Canfield did not promulgate regulations designed to channel the decedents and their families to Sunset Mesa,” the filing states.
Through the attorneys, Canfield also denied allegations that he caused some bodies to be taken to Sunset Mesa without familial consent.
Further, at the times covered by the suit, Montrose only had three funeral homes.
“Any disparity in the number of decedents received by one funeral home over another was not a product of illegal conduct, but instead, a product of family choice or the rotation system implemented by the sheriff’s office,” the motion states.
Prior to the Sunset Mesa matter, Canfield did remove one of the other funeral homes from the rotation, alleging the mortuary was not sufficiently responsive to calls for service and other factors. That mortuary has closed; its owner accused Canfield of deliberately cutting him out of the local business.
The May 2 motion in the Espinoza suit also denies allegations that money ever changed hands between funeral homes and the coroner’s office.
“Dr. Canfield never suspected anything illegal was occurring, did not participate in any (actionable) conspiracy or organized crime and did not receive money from Sunset Mesa,” Ziporin and Williams wrote.
The attorneys went on to say there is no evidence the coroner funneled families to Sunset Mesa. They added the plaintiffs cannot dispute the facts relevant to Canfield’s assertion of immunity, therefore, the claims against him can be dismissed without a hearing.
The bulk of plaintiffs — 56 — lack standing to bring a claim against Canfield or the coroner’s office, the motion also says: Of the 48 decedents named in Espinoza, et. al., the coroner’s office dealt only with decedents Steven Rice, Scott McMullin, Joshua Crawford and Myrna Dolores Cargill. At minimum, the claims brought by plaintiffs other than the four named people’s next of kin should be dismissed, the motion argues.
Ziporin and Williams also say the plaintiffs did not state a claim that entitles them to relief and that they failed to allege outrageous conduct or unjust enrichment against Canfield.
“They allege broadly that Dr. Canfield participated in Sunset Mesa’s scheme ‘for his own financial gain.’ … Nowhere in the complaint do plaintiffs identify the how/what or when of the financial benefit that Dr. Canfield allegedly received by way of his participation in the scheme,” the attorneys said, arguing the claim of unjust enrichment should be dismissed and barred from being refiled.
Similarly, the attorneys said, the plaintiffs failed to allege negligence against either Canfield or his office; instead, the claim appears to be based on a perceived duty to ensure that remains are treated with dignity and in accordance with their wishes.
Coroners have no duty to oversee the way funeral homes handle bodies, or to monitor funeral homes, the motion says.
The filing also takes aim at the complaint’s negligence and aiding-and-abetting allegations, saying none of these are supported.
Instead, the complaint imputes to Canfield awareness of wrongdoing because an October, 2017 news report should have put him on notice — but actual knowledge is not alleged.
“At most, the complaint alleges that Dr. Canfield and the coroner’s office channeled decedents and their families to Sunset Mesa. There is no allegation that either defendant participated in ‘promising cremation services and instead dismembering and selling ‘decedents’ body parts,” the attorneys wrote.
Similarly, the civil conspiracy claims made do not allege an actual conspiracy on the part of Canfield and the coroner’s office — just a “weak” connection based on allegations that Canfield was frequently at Sunset Mesa.
The Colorado Organized Crime Act allegations also fail, the motion says: “Plaintiffs do not identify a single specific allegation of misconduct on the part of Dr. Canfield or the coroner’s office.”
Money laundering is alleged, but not facts concerning how Canfield supposedly benefitted — whether he received money, how much, or how he would have tried to launder it. Instead, the complaint relies on “bare-bones” statutory language, the attorneys said.
The motion seeks attorneys’ fees and costs, along with dismissal.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.