In the first cases to emerge from a nationwide Federal Trade Commission crackdown on funeral homes that fail to give consumers the price lists and other information they're entitled to, the FTC and the Tennessee Attorney General today announced seven law-enforcement actions against funeral homes in Nashville. The crackdown involves joint FTC/state AG enforcement sweeps, where test shoppers are sent into most of the funeral homes in a given area to determine whether the homes provide consumers with copies of itemized price lists, a key requirement in the FTC's Funeral Rule. Sweeps in three other states have been conducted already, and cases resulting from those are expected to be announced soon. The FTC staff plans to expand the sweeps into other states over the coming months as part of the nationwide federal/state crackdown.
"The enforcement sweeps send the message that the FTC and the states will not tolerate violations of the FTC's Funeral Rule and its most important provision, which requires funeral homes to give consumers itemized lists of all the goods and services they offer," Robert Pitofsky, Chairman of the FTC, said today in announcing the action.
Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, "The Bureau sees this provision as a criti- cal tool for consumers making purchasing decisions that could total more than $10,000, often during a very difficult time emotionally. It gives them specific cost information and makes clear that they don't have to buy a package deal. The FTC's Funeral Rule allows consumers to choose only the items they want.
"Yet, despite extensive efforts to educate the industry about complying with the rule and the 43 law-enforcement actions the FTC has brought to date, funeral home compliance with the rule is low," Bernstein said. "So the Commission has joined forces with state Attorneys General to switch from tar- geting violators based on complaints, to a proactive approach designed to send a no-tolerance message and follow it up with quick and sure enforcement action."
Tennessee Attorney General Charles W. Burson said, "This Rule is important because consumers who are in need of these services are required to make immediate decisions and need to have the information in order to do comparison shopping. One cannot imagine a more sensitive and important purchasing deci- sion that the selection of one's or a loved one's funeral arrangements. This is such an emotionally charged time in the consumer's life that making educated decisions is very diffi- cult. Consequently, this is an area where we must insist upon the most rigid standards for the protection of the consumer."
Each year, Americans arrange more than 2 million funerals for family and friends. The FTC's Funeral Rule is designed to give consumers price and other information to make comparison shopping for funeral products and services easier, and to ensure that they select and pay for only those items they need or want. Among other things, the rule requires a funeral home to give consumers who inquire in person about its services a copy of a general price list. This list also discloses that a casket is not required if the deceased is to be cremated without a viewing, and includes other information about legal rights and required purchases.
The FTC's rule was promulgated in 1984 and revised in 1993. In the latest industry education effort, shortly after the amended rule become effective in July 1994, the Commission sent a detailed guide on how to comply with the rule to more than 18,000 funeral homes, virtually every one in the country.
The cases announced today involve charges against seven Nashville funeral homes and their principal officers for failing to give the test shoppers the required general price lists. In the three FTC Funeral Rule cases, the defendants have agreed to settle the charges under consent decrees that, if approved by the federal district court, would require the homes to pay civil penalties and to comply with all provisions of the Funeral Rule. The FTC settlements are with:
- Buena Vista Funeral Home, Inc. and its officers, John R. Bratten, Sr. and John R. Bratten, Jr. ($4,000 civil penalty);
- L.O.V. II, Inc., which does business as Lewis and Wright Funeral Directors, and its officers, Richard A. Lewis and Irving Sanchez, III ($7,500 civil penalty); and
- Patton Brothers Funeral Homes and its officers, Katharyn M. Patton, Alfonso B. Patton, and Mary Kathryn Patton ($16,000).
State Attorneys General can bring cases against funeral homes who do not provide price lists under their own state consumer protection laws. The Tennessee Attorney General's office cases announced today are against:
- Woodlawn Funeral Home, Inc. of Nashville;
- Hamilton Mortuary, Inc. of Nashville; -- Williamson Memorial Funeral Home, L.L.C. of Franklin; and
- Jennings & Ayers Funeral Directors, Inc. of Murfreesboro.
The FTC's Bernstein says consumers who are planning funerals can take a number of steps to better protect them- selves and their families from unnecessary and unexpected expenses by:
- having discussions about funeral plans in advance, when consumers can take the time to compare prices and services for individual items and packages;
- calling funeral homes to ask about prices and other terms for their products and services (the FTC rule requires funeral homes to provide such information over the telephone if requested or, if consumers visit the home, in the form of a general price list that consumers can take with them);
- asking for the itemized statement of the goods and services they have selected (the rule also requires funeral homes to provide this document to each customer, and to disclose on it the specific state law that requires the purchase of any item the customer did not select);
- understanding that a casket is not required for direct cremation, where there is no viewing of the body, and that it is illegal for a funeral home to tell you other- wise; and
- recognizing that they can purchase a casket at some place other than the funeral home, often for a lower price, and that the rule prohibits funeral homes from refusing to handle the casket and from charging a fee to do so.
A free FTC brochure for consumers, titled "Funerals: A Consumer Guide," provides additional information about con- sumers' rights and legal requirements when planning funerals. Copies are available at the address below.
The Commission vote to authorize filing of the Nashville cases was 5-0. They were filed yesterday by the Department of Justice at the FTC's request in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, in Nashville.
NOTE: These consent decrees are for settlement purposes only and do not constitute admissions by the defendants of law violations. Consent decrees have the force of law when signed by the judge.
Copies of the FTC consumer brochure and the complaints and proposed consent decrees are available from the FTC's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest FTC news as it is announced, call the FTC's NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710. FTC news releases and other materials also are available on the Internet at the FTC's World Wide Web Site at: http://www.ftc.gov
FTC File Nos./Civil Action Nos.:
Buena Vista: 952 3234/3-95-0642
L.O.V. II: 952 3233/3-95-0643
Patton Brothers: 952 3232/3-95-0641