January 10, 2018 10:11:55 AM
JACKSON -- Six black-owned funeral homes can proceed toward trial with their lawsuit alleging that a Mississippi Gulf Coast coroner discriminates in favor of white-owned competitors, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett on Friday ruled mostly for the plaintiffs, although he dismissed some of the claims against Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove. Ten of the original 13 legal grounds for the lawsuit remain alive.
The dispute revolves around cases where Harrison County pays for a body to be picked up, stored, autopsied or buried, usually at Hargrove's direction.
Starrett wrote that the plaintiffs produced enough evidence that Hargrove treated black-owned funeral homes differently from white-owned funeral homes for the case to proceed. One black funeral home owner has testified that Hargrove once told her that "white bodies go to the white funeral homes and black bodies go to the black funeral home."
The plaintiffs told Starrett there's plenty of evidence that Hargrove discriminated against them when directing who would get county-controlled business.
"Defendants have all but completely excluded plaintiffs from receiving mortuary business in their control," lawyer Steven Art wrote in November, urging Starrett to let the case go forward. "Plaintiffs repeatedly have observed the coroner exercise his authority based on race; the coroner has said that his decisions are influenced by race; and thousands of the coroner's own files -- produced by the coroner himself and extensively analyzed by plaintiffs and their experts -- reveal racial discrimination."
Hargrove and a lawyer for Harrison County deny discrimination, saying they follow the wishes of the deceased and their families. They say black-owned funeral homes have limited refrigeration facilities, and that a pathologist whom Hargrove didn't control had done all autopsies in the past at white-owned funeral homes.
"The limited exceptions occur when an autopsy is required or when a family member cannot be promptly located necessitating refrigeration of the body," lawyer Daniel Seawell wrote in October. "Hargrove has no control over the sites where autopsies were performed and no control over a funeral home's decision to provide proper refrigeration with sufficient capacity."
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