Family Seeks Compensation for Child Crushed by Tombstone

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Tombstones in a CemetaryWrongful death lawsuits seek compensation for the death of a spouse, child, or other family member that was caused without legal justification. Most wrongful death lawsuits are based on traffic accidents, medical malpractice, hazardous premises, and defective or unsafe products. Any act of negligence that causes a death, however, can trigger a wrongful death lawsuit.

In an application of wrongful death law that is unusual but not unprecedented, parents in Utah whose four-year-old child was crushed by a falling tombstone are suing the Glenwood Cemetery Association. The child’s parents allege that the Association negligently failed to maintain the tombstone while the Association claims that the tombstone was secure before the child began to climb on it.

A Cemetery Reborn

Glenwood Cemetery is a privately owned cemetery in Park City. Largely abandoned after nearby silver mines closed, the Glenwood Cemetery Association began to revitalize the cemetery in 1982. Relying on contributions, volunteers created a grave registry, installed benches, and repaired the damage that had been caused by years of neglect and vandalism. Cracked and broken tombstones have been taken to a monument company for repair. The cemetery is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Glenwood Cemetery enjoys a reputation as a tourist attraction, sparked in part by sponsored events such as “Halloween at the Glenwood,” an annual fundraiser in which volunteers, playing the role of deceased occupants of graves, tell the tragic stories of their lives. Visitors are welcome throughout the year. The cemetery offers a picturesque respite from the busy ski resorts that revived Park City after the depleted silver mines threatened to turn it into a ghost town.

Cemetery Association Sued for Child’s Death

Carson Dean Cheney was visiting Glenwood Cemetery with his family and friends. The 4-year-old from Lehi, Utah was near a tombstone while posing for pictures. One news account suggests that he was standing behind the tombstone, poking his head out in an attempt to make other children laugh, when metal holding the tombstone to a pedestal broke, causing the tombstone to topple. It took three men to lift the 250 pound stone from Carson’s body. Carson died from injuries to his head, chest, and abdomen.

The Cheneys contend that the tombstone fell due to shoddy maintenance. A key to their case is evidence that tombstones have fallen in the past. The Association’s awareness that other tombstones had fallen arguably put the Association on notice that tombstones were likely to fall in the future.

The foreseeability of harm generally imposes a duty upon property owners to take reasonable precautions to protect others from that harm. The Cheneys want the jury to conclude that, at the very least, the Association should have warned visitors of the risk that tombstones might fall.

The family intends to introduce evidence that steel dowels holding the stone in place rusted out and were replaced. Construction adhesive used during the repairs eventually came loose. The Association denies responsibility for those repairs.

The Association argues that the cemetery was regularly inspected and well-maintained. According to the Association, there was no reason to believe the tombstone posed a safety hazard before Carson began to play on it.

After the accident, the Association closed the cemetery for six weeks. It reopened the cemetery after posting signs warning visitors to stay on footpaths and to avoid contact with the tombstones. Carson’s family will argue that the absence of warning signs contributed to Carson’s death, although public policy usually prohibits the introduction of evidence that a property owner took remedial measures to prevent future accidents.

Other Cemetery Deaths

While the facts of the Cheney case are unusual, Carson is not the first person to be killed by a falling headstone. Another four-year-old was killed in May when a century old monument fell on top of him. A resident who was familiar with the Texas cemetery speculated that the stone may have been loosened by lawnmowers that regularly struck the markers.

Earlier this year, a 74-year-old man died in a Pennsylvania cemetery while decorating a family grave for Easter. The headstone’s fall was attributed to a thaw that softened the ground and caused the base to tilt. The man was buried near the tombstone that killed him.

In 2012, a four-year-old North Carolina girl was crushed by a 1,200 pound cross while playing in a cemetery before the start of her Bible study class. She was one of several children who were playing in the church cemetery when the cross fell.

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