Funeral Directors, State Association: Court Decision Good For Consumers

By Chris Buckley

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 12:01 a.m. by @TribLive

A U.S. Circuit Court ruling upholding Pennsylvania’s law governing the funeral industry is good news for the public, according to local funeral directors and their state agency.

The latest ruling reversed a lower court ruling issued two years ago.

In 2008, a small group of funeral directors sued the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors and two officials involved with investigating funeral homes for licensing violations. The plaintiffs alleged that 12 provisions of the state’s 1952 Funeral Director Law were unconstitutional.

In 2012, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones in Harrisburg struck down 11 regulations; one of the original 12 counts was withdrawn by the time he got the case.

Last week, however, a three-judge panel in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals declared that nine of the 11 provisions are constitutional.

Among them were the ability for the state to conduct random funeral home inspections and a ban on paying commissions to unlicensed salespeople or agents to secure business.

The appeals court also upheld the 100-percent trusting provision, which requires that all money paid for pre-arranged funerals be put into a trust for the customer’s benefit until his or her death. The plaintiffs wanted all of the money paid for services to go into trusts, but only 70 percent of customers’ payments for merchandise such as caskets or vaults are required to go into trusts.

JoAnn Pavlic, supervisor of the Leonard M. Pavlic Funeral Homes Inc. in Charleroi, is a past president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association. She said the initial lawsuit did not represent the funeral directors as a whole. In fact, she said, the plaintiffs represented less than a quarter of one percent of all operating in the business.

“It’s a great win for the consumers and the funeral directors alike,” Pavlic said with reference to the recent court ruling.

Pavlic said upholding the 100 percent trusting for pre-arranged funerals “is always best for the consumers.”

“You have to be a licensed funeral director to sell pre-need, that’s what you always want to have,” Pavlic said. “You want the expert person – the person who is licensed – to do that.”

Pavlic said the state board sets a higher standard for the funeral industry.

“There are always tweaks that need to be made and that could be made to laws, to bring them up to date,” Pavlic said. “I believe the state board realizes that, but it’s a process. Nothing can occur except through the Legislature.

“We want the consumer to be vigilant about who they are talking to, that they are talking to someone who is a licensed professional and is not going to take their money and run.”

The Circuit Court ruling means “everything goes back to square one,” said Tim Billick, supervisor of the Dalfonso-Billick Funeral Home Inc. and Cremation Services in Monessen.

But, he said, the recent ruling may lead to modernization of the 62-year-old state law that governs funeral home operations.

“It’s a win for the consumers because we’re still going to be monitored like the way we were before,” Billick said.

“It allows inspections and licensures to stay the way they were. Funeral homes must be operated by a licensed funeral director, not just some person who does not have the training.”

The State Board of Funeral Directors dragged its feet on updating the law, Billick said, leading to the lower court’s decision that the state law was unconstitutional.

For example, while Billick said he is not a proponent of serving food in a funeral home, he said if it is regulated, refreshments could be a welcome break for families, especially during long visitations.

“In any profession, you have to upgrade and update the way the consumer requests things to be done,” Billick said.

“Licensing is most important to protect the consumers. I don’t think just anyone should run a funeral home.”

John Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, said trusting, commissions and inspections were the top concerns for his organization and its members. He said the suit represented just four funeral homes statewide and the association was opposed to the suit.

“We think for public protection and safety there should be inspections of funeral homes for health reasons,” Erikson said.

He said the association also opposed paying commissions to independent agents to direct business to a funeral home.

And all funeral homes should have preparation rooms, Erikson said.

While some have advocated for change in the Funeral Director Law, Erikson believes it still has purpose.

“Because the law is old doesn’t mean it’s bad,” Erikson said.

“The U.S. Constitution is older. There are provisions of this law that have worked well for consumers for decades and protected them.”

 

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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