updated 10/18/2005 9:44:09 PM ET 2005-10-19T01:44:09

Three members of a Hmong family were awarded $40,000 Tuesday from a cemetery accused of burying their matriarch in a grave that contained someone else’s bones, a situation the family said was repulsive and an affront to their religion.

A jury found Mountain View Cemetery at fault for negligence and breach of contract for failing to bury Xia Yang “in a dignified manner.” But they also found her family members brought on some of their emotional distress themselves.

The jury awarded the three family members $40,414, instead of the $5 million the family had been seeking in its lawsuit.

Jurors found that only those three — two of Yang’s sons and one daughter-in-law — of the 11 plaintiffs suffered emotional distress.

The jury did not find the cemetery guilty of fraud or counts that could have led to punitive damages.

Judge M. Bruce Smith also said there was insufficient evidence of grave recycling, but the state agency responsible for overseeing cemeteries has opened a separate investigation into Mountain View’s practices.

Jurors failed to understand the suffering the family went through, said Vincent Yang, one of Xia Yang’s grandsons.

“What (the cemetery) did was wrong,” he said. “It violated our customs, our religion.”

Xia Yang’s family paid $1,914.38 for a plot at Mountain View cemetery in 2003. When they were shoveling dirt over the grave, they saw bones and two rusty casket handles in the dirt.

Eileen Deimerly, the attorney for the cemetery, said her client offered to refund the price of the plot, and to fill Yang’s grave with new dirt. Instead, the family walked out and sued.

Rejected other offers
The family also repeatedly turned down settlement offers, including one for $134,000, Deimerly said.

The Hmong, who arrived in the United States after helping the CIA in Laos during the Vietnam War, believe a person’s spirit can’t leave the earth and return to the ancestors’ world if it is burdened with extra weight.

A family will remove rings, even prosthetic limbs or metal teeth, before burial, according to Bee Yang, a Hmong expert teaching at California State University, Fresno, who is unrelated to the family.

Xia Yang, a shaman, was buried in an oversized casket imported from Laos, her family said.

Cemetery officials said the larger casket required a grave that was eight inches wider than usual, and encroached on neighboring burial sites. The bones the Yangs found belonged to a nearby grave, they contended.

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