Multi-million dollar lawsuit filed over unattended bodies

Grieving family left waiting for loved one's remains
Posted at 11:01 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 00:01:24-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Claims of maliciousness and ill will that led to grief and suffering – the allegations are disturbing: abuses of basic human dignity and respect for the dead. Now a multi-million-dollar lawsuit targets two local funeral homes and a former independent funeral director for what's described as reckless conduct.

A family claims the body of their deceased loved one was mishandled. And – as the state investigated the complaint – even more bodies were found.

"This one just goes so deep to the basics of human dignity,” says attorney John Morris, who filed a lawsuit naming Saddler Funeral Home in Lebanon and Nelson and Sons Memorial Chapel in Shelbyville, along with independent former funeral director Reid Van Ness, alleging abuses of human dignity and civil rights violations.

"He was getting people to pay him to take these bodies in and he was working through these two funeral homes," says Morris.

In the lawsuit, Morris says a family paid $4,000 to have their deceased son, Freddy Hernandez, shipped to them in Guatemala. But months passed, and no body arrived.

A complaint was filed with the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers and investigators made a startling discovery.

"Between these two funeral homes, they found 15 bodies that had been left, some of them in various states of decay," said Morris.

Including Hernandez's body, which should have been shipped to Central America. The state fined the funeral homes thousands of dollars and Van Ness surrendered his funeral director license.

Several of the bodies found were there for months – some decomposing. They also were not properly labeled for identification.

"I don't think any human can look at a situation like this regardless of who it happens to and not feel in their heart how terrible to have a family member just left to rot in a room somewhere," said Morris.

The funeral homes accepted the findings of the state but told NewsChannel 5 that Van Ness was largely responsible.

Van Ness told NewsChannel 5 they all were involved.

But Morris says, "All three are culpable in this very sad, atrocious situation."

The lawsuit is filed in federal court, seeking $4 million in damages for negligence and targeting a vulnerable population.

The defendants have not yet filed a response.

Morris says the case is a human rights issue – alleging the family was targeted because of their race and national origin. He says since the state found other bodies, he expects other Latin American families might now come forward.