A Sylvania woman alleges a local funeral home mishandled her husband’s body, allowing it to decompose to the point that the man had to be buried naked in a body bag.
Emma Williams filed a lawsuit July 19 against Sylvania Funeral Home claiming her husband’s body was improperly embalmed, stored incorrectly, and that the funeral home staff refused to allow her to view the body.
According to Megan Haley, an attorney with Atlanta-based Fellows La Briola LLP, Williams “filed a lawsuit in the State Court of Chatham County alleging the improper embalmment and storage of the remains of her late husband Johnny Lee Williams by Sylvania Funeral Home Inc.”
The suit also lists James Vernard Flowers, whom she said she was led to believe was the funeral director, and Jarvis Elaine Barnes, who is the funeral director and whom Emma Williams had never met. According to Georgia Secretary of State records, Flowers is the CEO of Sylvania Funeral Home and had never been a licensed funeral home director. His funeral services apprentice license expired in 2008, according to the lawsuit.
Johnny Lee Williams Jr., 61, died underneath a mobile home on Wednesday, Jan. 18 in Hiltonia, where he was working on an air-conditioning unit. Screven County Coroner James M. Strickland pronounced him dead of a severe heart attack.
Strickland delivered Williams’ body to Sylvania Funeral Home about two hours after he died and noted the body was in good condition, according to the suit.
The next day, when Emma Williams went to make arrangements and view the body, she was told Flowers was not there and she could not see her husband’s body, according to the civil action suit.
The next day, Williams received a call from someone at Sylvania Funeral Home who said she would have to make an appointment to see Flowers, and he was not there that day, either. In a call on Sunday, four days after Johnny Williams’ death, Emma Williams was notified of an appointment with Flowers later that day.
When Flowers met with Emma Williams, he was “concerned about her insurance not covering expenses” and said Johnny Williams’ body had been received “in very poor condition,” the lawsuit states.
Emma Williams was still denied the chance to see her husband’s body, and her son was not allowed to shave his father’s face in preparation of the open-casket funeral they planned.
Frustrated, Emma Williams notified Sylvania Funeral Home that she would have another local business, Gaines Funeral Home, pick up her husband’s body for preparation and a funeral. According to the lawsuit, Flowers demanded more time to do further work on the body, including “aspirate it once more.” He also refused to allow the body to be taken until $900 was paid for his efforts, the suit states. Upon further requests from Gaines Funeral Home, Flowers agreed to let the body be picked up Jan. 24, six days after Johnny Williams’ death.
The representative of Gaines’ Funeral Home told Emma Williams the body was found to be “in very bad condition, dark in color, with skin slippage in some areas, and emanated the odor of a decomposing body,” according to the suit.
Gaines Funeral Home called Strickland, who viewed the body in its condition. Strickland stated, according to the suit, that (Johnny) Williams’ body was now “discolored, bloated, had skin slippage, and a noxious odor consistent with what happens to a body when not stored properly or is not embalmed properly or in a timely manner.”
The body was in such poor condition it had to be buried before the funeral, “without any clothing, naked in a body bag,” according to the suit. The family was unable to have an open casket funeral, and held the service with an empty casket.
Haley stated that records from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office prove Flowers was never a licensed funeral home director and had allowed his funeral services apprentice license to lapse in 2008. As Flowers’ supervisor and funeral director of Sylvania Funeral Home, it was Barnes’ responsibility to ensure proper handling of the body, and she is being named in the suit as well, the attorney said.
“Despite of — or perhaps due to — the lack of licensure, the complaint alleges that Mr. Flowers negligently handled Mr. Williams’ remains. The complaint further alleges that Mr. Flowers avoided Mrs. Williams’ attempts to meet with him for several days and, when he eventually did meet with her, attempted to cover up the improper treatment of her late husband’s remains,” Haley said. “Through this lawsuit, Mrs. Williams is hopeful that legal discovery, media inquiry and/or Georgia regulatory or law enforcement investigation will assist in ensuring that justice is served and preventing what has occurred to her and her family from happening to anyone else.”
Emma Williams is suing for fraud, citing misrepresentation of licensing and treatment of the body, and the fact that Flowers did not admit his failures, being untruthful instead by trying to claim the body was received in poor condition, according to the lawsuit.
She is also suing for breach of contract, negligence, willful interference of remains and intentional mishandling of a corpse, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Williams seeks punitive damages as well as litigation costs, Haley said.
According to the lawsuit, “the defendants have acted in bad faith” and have been “stubbornly litigious.” The suit demands a trial by jury. The amount of damages and costs has not yet been determined, according to the lawsuit.
Flowers declined to comment, citing legal advice suggested he not make a statement. Williams also declined to comment, saying that to discuss the issue was ”too upsetting,” Haley said.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-9414.