PARK CITY, Utah – A jury found late Thursday that a Utah cemetery association was not negligent in the death of a 4-year-old boy who was crushed by a historic headstone, one of a handful of similar deaths around the country in recent years.
Jurors delivered their decision in a family lawsuit over the 2012 death of Carson Dean Cheney, who was hiding behind the 250-pound tombstone that fell while he took pictures with his family in Park City.
Lawyers for the boy's parents argued that the Glenwood Cemetery Association allowed the 1889 stone to get dangerously weak with shoddy maintenance and failed to warn people about possible danger, including that headstones had fallen before. They sought between $2 million and $4 million in damages.
The association said its volunteers conducted frequent inspections of the cemetery and the headstone was stable until the boy started playing on it July 5, 2012.
Cemetery Association lawyer Paul Belnap said that while the group was sorry for the boy's death, they appreciated the jury's work in the case.
The verdict came down late Thursday after about three and a half hours of deliberation.
The Cheney family was disappointed with the decision in lawsuit they saw as a way to help make aging cemeteries safer, said family attorney Ron Kramer.
During the three-day trial, the boy's father testified that he turned from his camera to see his son looking at him as he lay trapped under the headstone. An emotional Zac Cheney said that his son struggled before dying of a head injury.
"He had his eyes open and he was looking at me, and he was just gasping, trying to breathe," Cheney testified.
Cheney, his wife and two sons had come to the picturesque cemetery after a family friend asked Cheney to take pictures during their reunion at a nearby Park City resort.
Carson Cheney was trying to pop out from behind the tombstone to make other children smile for the camera, said the family's lawyer, Ron Kramer. The children were restless, so the boy's mother had encouraged him to help by pretending to be a leprechaun, Kramer said.
The cemetery opened in 1885 for silver miners and their families, but as the industry faded, it fell into disrepair. The association restored the cemetery and welcomed the public, including school groups that did rubbings on gravestones, Kramer said.
Carson's family says steel dowels that attached Michael Horan's headstone stone to its base rusted out over the years, and it was repaired with construction adhesive.
The association denied fixing the stone. Belnap said the Horan family and volunteers had been making regular inspections in the months before the boy's death and as recently as two days before. They did not find any outward problems with the stone, he said.
Engineer James McCullough testified that the headstone was stable because it withstood winds of about 50 mph. The cemetery was closed for six weeks after the boy's death, and when it reopened, the association posted signs asking people not to touch the headstones and to stay on footpaths.
There have been other cases of injuries and deaths from a falling tombstone in recent years.
In June 2012, the month before Carson's death, a 4-year-old North Carolina girl was killed when a massive cross fell off a tombstone as she played before Bible study class.
The following year, a cemetery worker in Texas died after a tombstone weighing about a ton fell on him in Edinburg.
In May, a 4-year-old boy in Odessa, Texas, died after a tombstone fell on him while he was visiting a cemetery with his family.