Eternally in Demand

Tom Carey’s business is dying … and it’s booming

Published in 2006 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2006

Clearwater attorney Tom Carey’s legal niche is guaranteed to be eternally in demand: cemetery and funeral home malpractice. Carey’s law firm, Carey & Leisure, happens to be one of the few law firms around the nation that claim such an esoteric expertise. Judging from his growing record of multimillion-dollar judgments and a burgeoning case load, Carey’s peculiar practice appears to be thriving. Death is big business.
 
Still, Carey says he hardly began his career imagining he would become a defender of the rights of the deceased.
 
“One day 10 years ago,” he recalls, “a little 80-year-old lady walked into my office and announced, ‘They dug up my baby.’”
 
That turned out to be one of the biggest scandals in recent history, a case that rocked the cemetery and funeral services industry. The press dubbed it the “Babyland” case after the section where hundreds of infants were buried at the Royal Palm Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Cemetery officials had instructed workers to install an irrigation system in Babyland. Using a backhoe to dig a ditch, workers unearthed the remains of around 100 deceased infants, wrecking and damaging gravestones and tiny caskets along the way.
 
Court papers reveal that workers and cemetery management tried to hide their blunder by gathering up remains to put in plastic bags for reburial in mass, unmarked graves. Some remains were even pitched into a nearby garbage dumpster, according to one complaint. Cemetery officials threatened to fire workers who blabbed.
 
By the time this case was over, Carey had won undisclosed compensation for emotional distress for more than 300 plaintiffs.
 
Reporters around the country kept the phone lines busy. As did new clients.
 
Carey’s specialty may have begun by chance, but ever since he’s worked hard to make his own luck in the courtroom. “Babyland” was but one of his many high-profile — and heart-wrenching — cases. Several years ago, Carey went after an international organization that distributes organs and tissues for medical research, charging the nonprofit with harvesting body parts from deceased indigents without properly testing for highly contagious and deadly diseases such as hepatitis C. “Just think how many medical students and nurses could have been exposed and infected,” Carey says.
 
Last year, in one of the nation’s most bizarre cases of alleged funeral industry misconduct, Carey filed more than a dozen lawsuits against a Florida funeral home with allegations that read like a roster of horror-movie scenarios — including claims that the company gave grieving families still-hot ashes of cremated loved ones, stole jewelry and valuables off bodies and filled a garbage can with the cremated ashes of some 100 people. The funeral director’s cat allegedly used a can as a litter box. Those cases were settled for undisclosed amounts.
 
Despite such ghoulish misbehavior, Carey says the vast majority of funeral and cemetery services outfits do an admirable job. “Mistakes happen in any business,” he says. “But when they happen in this business, they’re whoppers.”
 
That people are often emotionally vulnerable — and volatile — when grieving makes any misconduct seem horrific, Carey says.
 
Indeed, Carey knows this firsthand. Soon after Carey’s young wife, Joni, was killed by a drunk driver in 1983 — six months after the couple was married — he received a piece of marketing material from a funeral services company offering condolences and pitching a fancier memorial. “The letter said something like, ‘Dear Joni. We’re so sorry your husband was killed in a car wreck,’” Carey recalls. “It was such a dumb little mistake, but I was so horrified. So I know what these people are going through.”

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