Richard Pravato of Wolf & Pravato. Courtesy photo
Stephanie Fervin was already distraught following the Oct. 30 funeral for her stillborn daughter, Queenattie. Her grief only deepened upon learning her daughter had not been buried at her own ceremony and had been mistakenly swapped with someone else's dead child.
On Nov. 9, following several visits to McWhite's Funeral Home to make new funeral plans for her daughter, an employee of the parlor told Fervin and her partner Stanley Louis that their daughter had already been placed in the ground, according to Pravato. The Fort Lauderdale funeral home was allegedly in a rush to wash its hands of the situation, and with no service or arrangements, had dressed the dead infant in little more than a haphazardly placed plastic sheet, the attorney said.
McWhite's employees allegedly resisted Fervin's pleas to bury her child with proper clothing. Richard Pravato, Fervin and Louis' legal counsel, said the mother was inconsolable.
"She was devastated at the loss of her baby," the Fort Lauderdale litigator said. "She said something to me about how every time she remembers her daughter, it always is going to be tangled, wrapped up in this nightmare of circumstances. … She’s hurt."
Although the funeral home allegedly relented eventually and allowed Fervin's and Louis' child to be re-buried with pajamas, the circumstances were a world away from their daughter's initial funeral, where the blow of their tragedy was softened by the support of their friends and family.
In January, Pravato filed a complaint against McWhite's in Broward Circuit Court with co-counsel Brett Yonon on behalf of the couple. The lawsuit alleged the funeral home had committed "fraud, deceit, negligence, incompetence, and misconduct." On Feb. 18, State Farm Insurance Co. tendered McWhite's professional liability insurance and paid a $500,000 settlement to Fervin and Louis, avoiding a trial.
The other half of the funeral home's $1 million policy went to Lafondra Wright and Jarvis McCloud, the parents of the child placed in the coffin intended for Fervin's and Louis' daughter.
Even with the settlement, Pravato said the damage had already been done. According to the attorney, Albert McWhite, the owner of the funeral home, did his best to conceal the truth of what had happened to his client's baby.
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"When Fervin and Louis asked to have the casket open, McWhite tried to discourage them," Pravato said.
Upon opening the casket, the baby was much larger than they'd remembered, a change McWhite allegedly tried to explain by attributing it to the embalming process.
Soon after the burial, Louis received a letter requesting his signature for a "disinterment order" to dig up a body.
"At first McWhite suggested this has something to do with Broward residents getting a credit for a burial," Pravato said. Now suspicious, Louis refused to sign the document and said he'd need to confer with Fervin first. After pushing the issue, he was told about the mix-up that had occurred.
Having already buried their daughter once, Fervin and Louis returned to McWhite's to select a burial spot once again, at which point they discovered her body had been haphazardly preserved in plastic.
The attorney for the second family affected by McWhite's error said his clients discovered the mistake in a similarly harrowing manner. Fort Lauderdale lawyer Michael Lewenz said on the day Wright and McCloud were burying their own child, Wright's grandmother discovered the body in the coffin was not her great-grandson.
"Alfred McWhite tried to convince the couple that baby in the coffin ... was actually their son whose body diminished in size," the Zebersky Payne Shaw Lewenz partner said. "Then McWhite confirmed the truth: The funeral home had lost Jarvis Jr.’s body. Further investigation led to the horrific reality that Jarvis Jr.’s body was switched with, and subsequently buried in place of, another child who had tragically passed away."
Neither the funeral home nor its attorney, Green & Ackerman partner Jay Green, responded to requests for comment by deadline.
Prior to this case, Pravato had secured a $3.5 million judgment in an unrelated case from 2016 against the Taylor Smith West Funeral Home for mishandling the body of his client’s mother.
"It is really outrageous and truly unfortunate that these companies do not exercise greater care when dealing with our loved ones remains," Pravato said.
"It’s hard to say how common this is because in all of the cases we’ve had, there were attempts by the funeral home to get away with not being discovered," he added. "Were it not for the persistence of our clients, they probably would have gotten away with it. ... Who wants to go and delve back into this?"
Pravato said his clients are trying to move on and are "appreciative the insurance company did the right thing right away."
"We put our trust in these companies to do the right thing ... and when they don’t, the effects are devastating," he said. "When you deprive a family of closure, that’s a harm you can’t undo."
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