054: Dead to Rights

Stella Case No. 054, Originally Published: 11 June 2003

Dorothy VerValen, 51, visited her grandfather’s 53-year-old grave in Sultan, Wash. There was some moss on his headstone, so she stepped on the grave to scrape it off.

When she stepped on the grave, VerValen, who weighed 375 pounds, collapsed the dirt and her right foot sank into the ground. Her left foot stayed on firm ground, and her left ankle was broken.

dead right 300x158 - 054: Dead to Rights“I literally had one foot in the grave,” she says. “I thought I was in a Stephen King movie.”

No, she wasn’t in a horror movie, but rather a courtroom drama — she sued the city claiming it was negligent, seeking unspecified damages for injuries, emotional distress and legal costs.

“The city of Sultan wants people to walk around, but they don’t need to be out there every minute making it safe,” says the city’s lawyer, Diana Blakney.

“They know sinkholes happen, especially in pre-1960s graves,” says VerValen’s lawyer, Robert Butler, but “they’re not doing anything to prevent it from happening.” Older graves are subject to sinkholes when the coffin rots away, leaving an open space six feet below the surface. But the only sinkholes that have appeared in the Sultan Cemetery were the result of “heavy equipment” breaking through, Blakney says. Newer burial vaults are generally lined with concrete, which reduces the chance of such problems.

Blakney argues the state’s Recreational Use Act applies to the cemetery. That law notes that users of recreational facilities are responsible for their own safety. The cemetery is open 24 hours a day and does not charge any admission.

If someone must be held responsible for VerValen’s injuries, why not her own family, who buried grampa in a coffin that could rot away when they could have used a concrete-lined vault? Or, more realistically, how about if she takes responsibility for herself, when she “knows or should have known” that not every hollow structure can support someone who tilts the scale at a fifth of a ton?


  • “Grave Encounter at Sinkhole Leads to Suit,” Portland Oregonian, 29 May 2003.

Case Status

It’s fairly amusing that her own lawyer noted that such sinkholes are common knowledge; doesn’t that pretty much deflate her case? Sure enough, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Richard Thorpe dismissed the lawsuit. Again according to the plaintiff’s attorney, the judge ruled “that the weight of Mrs. VerValen is the substantial factor” behind her injury.

“Everybody says it’s because of my weight,” VerValen complained, “but my 2-year-old grandson could have fallen in there” — completely missing the irony in her own statement since a 2-year-old certainly wouldn’t have punched through the ground. Unless, of course, he weighed a fifth of a ton.

At least it’s nice to know that cases can still be decided on the weight of the evidence. Total time from injury to case dismissal: 27 months.

(Source: “Judge Waives Suit in Mishap at Sultan Grave,” Seattle Times, June 18, 2003.)

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

Several online readers objected to my “fifth of a ton” comment. Would I be offended at someone saying I’m nearly a “tenth of a ton”? Of course not: it’s accurate. I also weigh 78,000 grams. This is somehow more offensive than “175 pounds”?

As plenty of Jewish readers wrote to say, no one should be going around stepping on any grave. There are often practical reasons for religious prohibitions; perhaps this is one example of that.


Ken in Virginia: “Your latest publication was great, as usual. I appreciate the fact that you publish both pro and con comments. We should file a class action lawsuit against everybody who started smoking after the cigarette companies were required to post the Surgeon General’s warning on all packs. I am following the same logic behind the lawsuit against cigarette companies by numerous Attorneys’ General that the companies were aware of the health risks allegedly attributed to smoking and that because of that the states burden, vis a vis health care, was greatly increased. I would propose that we sue all smokers (of which I am one) who have since started smoking. This is in anticipation of the pending health care costs that will no doubt arise when we smokers get older.”

What do you mean “we” should sue, Ken? You won’t be allowed to be a plaintiff if you’re a defendant! And while your idea is amusing, the way things are going it doesn’t really sound all that far fetched….

Bob in Kentucky: “I have many times made the comment that here in the good old USofA we have a ‘legal system’ rather than a ‘system of justice’. Your Stella Awards highlight the absurdities of our current ‘legal system’. It doesn’t matter who is guilty or who is innocent, it only matters how you play the game. Prosecutors have been quoted as saying, basically, that guilt or innocence doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is whether the defendant got a ‘fair trial’. Obviously, the system is broken. However, once I get to that point, I am stymied regarding how to fix the ‘system’. Every time I come up with an idea, I find that the cure is worse than the disease. I honestly believe that our current ‘legal system’ is deeply flawed. I would love to see a future column address how it could be fixed.”

As you have figured out, there are no easy answers. Indeed, there’s no way to propose any comprehensive fix in a short newsletter.

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3 Comments on “054: Dead to Rights

  1. Re Bob in Kentucky’s letter:

    A defense attorney is required to do the best for his client. One I know said that when his client was guilty, his job is to get the best deal on a punishment for them.

    A prosecutor I know of said that that after law school, he decided that he could not defend a guilty client, but as a prosecutor he could decide to not prosecute someone he did not think was guilty.

    Definitely an interesting thought exercise, but I “should” have pointed out that TSA is about lawsuits — civil cases, which is a big enough bite to chew on — not criminal prosecutions, which have their own issues and needed reforms. -rc


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