Albion Monitor /News

Funeral Industry Goliath Sues Small Publisher

by Terril Shorb

Sued over quote that appeared in 1986 magazine
PHOENIX -- The world's largest funeral enterprise is suing a tiny book publisher, claiming that a nine-word statement -- quoted from a magazine article -- isn't true and severely harms Service Corporation International (SCI) and its Chief Executive Officer.

The remark was reportedly made in 1986 by CEO Robert L.Waltrip, saying that the company's network of funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoria will make SCI "the True Value Hardware of the funeral-service industry."

The alleged quote appears in "Profits of Death: An Insider Exposes the Death Care Industries," and was culled from a 1986 Business Week profile of Waltrip. The quote was used verbatim in the book, though not attributed to the magazine. SCI's suit pleads that the quote threatens the industry giant, which owns more than 3,300 funeral homes and cemeteries and reported a 1997 revenue of $2.5 billion.

Wiley said he has no knowledge of SCI challenging the quote when it appeared in Business Week
Rob L. Wiley, one of the lawyers representing Waltrip and SCI, told the Monitor that Waltrip denies that he made that statement at the time of the Business Week story, and he denies it now. "The basic reason that Mr. Waltrip feels this is defamatory is that the suggestion that he wants to do business the same way as True Value Hardware does is so at odds with the way he structures the company and the way in which SCI operates."

Did SCI sue or complain when the quote originally appeared in Business Week? Wiley said he has no knowledge of SCI challenging the quote at that time. "We looked at that and decided it was not an impediment to the present lawsuit because (Waltrip) contends that he didn't say it. The issue is still whether he said it or not and he's going to maintain that he didn't say it."

Author Darryl J. Roberts, a longtime owner of a funeral conglomerate, told the Monitor from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona that his research did not find "any other denunication of that (quote). We reviewed the business journals and we had no reason at all to believe that it was not true."

The owner of Five Star Publications, Linda Radke, said she "stands behind the book" which has had modest sales. "I stand behind educating consumers about the (death care) industry. At some point, each of us is going to have to answer that phone (when a death occurs in our family)." The Chandler, Arizona independent publisher also said the essence of the book is its approachable style and straight-forward presentation of how the industry works. "In order to cut costs (associated with a funeral) you need to understand how the industry works. You need to become educated so you would know if you're being sold a bill of goods."

She added that the publishing industry should also be interested in this case, "because it questions our rights to help consumers to be informed."

While Rob Wiley says the book "just slams the industry almost indiscriminately," Karen Leonard, a death rights activist and research assistant to the late Jessica Mitford, feels the book "is the best of its kind that I've seen. There was nothing in the book I hadn't heard of before, as a person who has researched this industry intensely for the past ten years." The power of the book, Leonard feels, is that it comes from an industry insider.

"(Roberts) is someone who has succeeded at all these practices. When he comes out and says it is a rip-off, he's potentially more dangerous to the industry. He's not just some disgruntled employee."

Executive Director of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, Lisa Carlson, said though she laments the book's strong endorsement of pre-paid funerals, "any reporting of the mischief in the industry is a service to the consumer."

"They say (the book) defames them, but they don't say that there's a word in there that's not true, except for this quote"
Attorney Wiley said his law firm is starting the discovery process, and a trial date has been set for January of 1999.

But will it get to trial? "We are prepared to pursue the litigation," Wiley said. "This is not about the size of the corporation, or money. It's about the fact that a man who for over 30 years has been a part of building an extremely successful business organization has a modus operandi completely at odds with the way he is characterized in this book and that's what he is upset about." Wiley acknowledged that if the author and publisher were to come forward with an apology, that might "go a long way toward helping to resolve this."

Roberts strongly responds, "there is nothing to apologize for. The book is about the industry in of the interesting things about the suit is they say (the book) defames them, but they don't say that there's a word in there that's not true, except for this quote." The suit, Roberts told the Monitor, "denigrates my whole book."

Publisher Radke has similar strong feelings about the integrity and importance of the book, "In this lifetime you hope you'll make a difference. You hope you'll be able to do someting that makes it better for everyone." The book, she says, gives her that hope.

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Albion Monitor February 21, 1998 (

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