Breach of Contract - Element of Materiality - Crestview Memorial Funeral Home, Inc. v. Gilmer

In Crestview Memorial Funeral Home, Inc. v. Gilmer, [Ms. 1100235, Aug. 26, 2011] __ So. 3d __(Ala. 2011), the Alabama Supreme Court reversed a jury verdict of $350,000 in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages on a suppression claim based on the trial court's decision to grant a judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff's breach of contract action. Plaintiff's husband passed away on July 16, 2003. The next day, she went to Crestview Funeral Home to arrange a funeral. She signed an "Authorization to Embalm and Prepare," but was not informed that Crestview's only licensed embalmer at the time was on medical leave. Another individual, Taud, who was neither an apprentice nor a licensed embalmer, embalmed Plaintiff's husband's body. Yet another individual, Caldwell, who was an apprentice embalmer, signed the embalming report even though she was not present when the embalming took place. She received her embalming license two weeks after Plaintiff's husband was buried. With respect to the breach of contract claim, the Court focused on whether the alleged breach of contract was material, which is defined as one that "touches the fundamental purposes of the contract and defeats the object of the parties in making the contract." Sokol v. Bruno's, Inc., 527 So. 2d 1245, 1248 (Ala. 1988). The Court examined the portion of the authorization that required that the embalming be done by someone "allowed to perform such work under applicable law." The Court presumed that the purpose of this requirement was to ensure that the embalming was done properly. Plaintiff did not argue that the embalming was done improperly, but did testify that her husband's body appeared to be swollen at the funeral. Crestview offered alternative explanations for the swelling other than improper embalming. Based on this analysis, the Court concluded that Gilmer had not established as a matter of law "that the alleged breach of contract D i.e., the failure to have a licensed embalmer embalm [Plaintiff's husband's] body D went to the 'fundamental purposes of the contract [or] defeat[ed] the object of the parties in making the contract.'" Because materiality is also an aspect to be considered in a suppression claim, the Court held that it could not determine "what, if any, influence the trial court's JML on the breach of contract claim had on the jury's consideration of the suppression claim." Therefore, it reversed the $350,000 compensatory award and the $3 million punitive award on the suppression claim and remanded the case for a new trial on both claims.
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