GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Family members who sued a Grand Rapids funeral home after staff dropped their mother's casket say their attorney entered an $80,000 settlement without their permission.
Ellnora James' eight children are named in the suit against Ivy K. Gillespie Funeral Home in southeast Grand Rapids.
They say that funeral home staff dropped James' casket outside a Grand Rapids church just before her November 2011 funeral.
James' body spilled to the ground in front of other family members, the siblings say, and she had to be dressed in a new outfit and placed in a new casket before the funeral could progress.
The children sued the funeral home. While all eight children named in the suit acknowledge that settlement was discussed, they say they left the Kent County Courthouse Monday evening under the impression that the case was going to trial the next day.
24 Hour News 8 has confirmed that the family met at the courthouse for hours Monday. Then, at 5 p.m. -- closing time at the courthouse -- a court clerk entered into the computer that trial would start at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. The family says that's when they left, prepared to be back the next day.
But at 5:32 p.m., the settlement hearing started, according to a transcript, and the $80,000 settlement was entered.
When the family arrived at Judge George Buth's courtroom on Tuesday, they were told that there would be no trial.
"The court clerk came out and asked us what was we doing out there," said Elijah Libbett, James' son. "The case was settled."
"It was never settled while we was there," said James' son, Dean Libbett.
The siblings told 24 Hour News 8 the news was a surprise.
"Why would I take a settlement when it was already admitted?" said James' daughter, Helen Staten.
Now, the family wants that settlement vacated.
They allege their attorney Ryan Maesen acted against their desire to take the case to trial.
"I followed my ethical obligations to enter the settlement per my clients' wishes on the record. That's all I have to say about it," Maesen told 24 Hour News 8.
Maesen said he thought the settlement was fair and has doubts about whether a jury would have awarded them anything at all.
The transcript of the settlement hearing shows that the judge asked Maesen if he had contact with all eight and that the settlement was agreed to among them. Maesen answered yes and still stands by that answer.
24 Hour News 8 asked if Maeson wanted to respond to rather or not he told the truth to the judge.
"I always tell the truth to a judge," Maesen said. "Always."
But the family says Maesen didn't consult them.
"How can we even come to an agreement if we don't know what we're agreeing to?" asked Debra Barrington, James' daughter.
The siblings accuse Maesen of entering into the settlement to get his cut of the money that he was counting on for his own bills.
"I never discuss personal financial matters with clients other than what they owe me," said Maesen.
The siblings maintain they did not want to settle.
"To sweep this under the rug the way they have from the beginning is what's more hurting than losing money. It's as if it never happened," said Dean Libbett. "We want the trial that we asked for. That's where our justice lies."
The family can petition the court to have the settlement set aside, but that would be up to the judge. Buth has not commented on the issue.
The funeral home says it has apologized for what happened.
"For me, it's not about the money. It's what they did to my mom," said daughter Tawanna Libbett.
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