Embattled ex-funeral director Megan Hess has offered to settle one of several lawsuits filed over her alleged mishandling of human remains — for $726, the price of cremation services.
Shirley Hollenback and Diana McBride sued Hess and Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation last year, after Reuters broke the news of alleged “body brokering” at Sunset Mesa and its associated non-transplant tissue donation business, Donor Services Inc.
The Montrose businesses closed in wake of a 2018 federal raid and state suspension of crematory and mortuary registrations. The FBI is investigating, but has not publicly disclosed why, although several families who used the funeral home have alleged in court documents and public settings that their loved ones’ remains were “harvested” and sold without permission.
Hess denies the allegations.
Hollenback and McBride are, respectively, the widow and stepdaughter of Gerald “Cactus” Hollenback, who died in 2017.
They allege in their suit that Hess returned to them cremains that, based on the contents of the container, were not Cactus’. Further, the women alleged his body may have been used for “unauthorized purposes.”
Most recently, the women filed for default judgment including $3 million in damages, claiming severe emotional distress.
Hess on July 18 filed a motion seeking a settlement conference to be overseen by “an ethical, unbiased mediator.” Hess offered $726 — the cost Hollenback paid for her husband’s cremation — calling the women’s assertion they had received the wrong ashes “opinion, not fact.”
Cactus Hollenback was wearing pajamas when his body was transported from the hospital morgue to Sunset Mesa, according to the suit and also to state documents. His widow alleged in the court filings she had difficulty in obtaining the cremains and that, later, a rivet, part of a watch, part of a zipper and other metal items not associated with what Cactus was wearing were found in the ashes.
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies listed Cactus’ case among its findings supporting suspension of Hess’ registrations. These findings also alleged other people received concrete mix instead of ashes.
Hess ultimately entered a stipulated agreement with the state, permanently surrendering her registrations without admitting the findings.
“A zipper and a rivet is hardly evidence of wrongdoing when the deceased was cremated in a body bag made with a zipper and rivets,” Hess said in her July motion.
She also said the container holding the ashes had not been sealed and she could not be responsible for anything that may have happened after it left her facility.
“If plaintiff is claiming they did not receive the correct ashes, then have the laboratory determine whose ashes are contained, including name, age and cause of death,” Hess wrote in the motion.
She said since the other women are seeking $3 million, they should have to prove they did receive the incorrect cremains “through certified lab results.”
Otherwise, Hess said, the suit is nothing more than the “unhappy” daughter of customer, who should only receive a refund for services rendered.
Hollenback and McBride in past filings said the distress they have suffered includes unpleasant memories, reactions, nervous shock, horror, grief, humiliation, anger, disappointment and worry as the result of “outrageous and egregious conduct” perpetrated against them at a time their grief made them particularly vulnerable.
Each seeks $468,010 for severe emotional and physical distress and an additional $996,020, each, on the trebled Colorado Consumer Protection Act claim.
An evidentiary hearing has been set for Aug. 26.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.