A North Carolina judge declined to discipline a funeral director who left a Carrboro woman's decomposing body in the back of a parked hearse for nine days because the man had exhausted all his legal options for properly dealing with the body.
"You're out of business," administrative law judge Don Overby told Lawson after a four-hour hearing.
Walton was a 37-year-old woman who lived alone in a Carrboro apartment when she died in early August 2010. When she was found in the uncooled apartment, officials estimated that she had been dead for about a week, most likely the result of illness.
Carrboro police called Lawson, one of the funeral directors in their rotation, to come pick her up. He told the judge Wednesday that he tried repeatedly to treat Walton's body while he tried to locate her next of kin, but that it was too late for the embalming process when he got the body and that he could do little to suppress the putrid odor.
Neither Lawson nor police could find any relatives of Walton's, and an out-of-state friend Lawson finally reached would not accept responsibility for the body.
Lawson couldn't have Walton cremated or buried without authorization from next of kind or an official with the Orange County Department of Social Services, who he said would not return his calls. The state medical examiner's office refused to take the body because no autopsy was required, and no medical school in the state will take a body more than 10 days after death.
Lawson had sent Walton's body to a crematory for cold storage, but the odor was overwhelming and they brought her back the next day. Lawson said a worker from the crematory left Walton's body in the back of an older-model hearse parked on Lawson's property while Lawson was out on a call.
There she remained until police, responding to complaints from neighbors about the smell, found her on Aug. 20. Each day while her body lay in the hearse, the temperature outside topped 90 degrees.
"I had nowhere else to take it," Lawson told the judge. "I had no choice."
The state Board of Funeral Service launched an investigation into the incident. After that began, the board received a number of complaints from people who said Lawson owed them money. They said they had pre-paid for funeral services, but changed their minds about letting Lawson handle the services, and asked for their money back. In several cases, Lawson still has not returned the money.
Lawson was not licensed to sell so-called "pre-need" services, which are regulated by state law and audited by the Board of Funeral Service.
The board found that Lawson had sold the contracts when he wasn't licensed to do so; had not used the required contract forms or filed copies of the contracts with the board as required by law, and had misappropriated the money for the services, which the law says must be set aside in a trust account or insurance policy.
The board also found that Lawson had kept overpayments from insurance policies that he should have refunded after funeral costs had been paid.
The board's executive director, William Paul Harris, said those actions amounted to fraud. While the handling of Walton's body was disrespectful, the board found the fraud charges more egregious and wanted Lawson's licenses revoked over those.
In his ruling, Judge Overby agreed that what happened to Walton's body was unfortunate, but said the board itself was not helpful. When Lawson called the board for advice, Harris suggested Lawson ice the body down to slow the decomposition, and told Lawson he needed to apply more pressure to the Carrboro Police Department or the medical examiner's office.
"Have you ever tried that?" Overby asked Harris during the hearing.
Harris also told the judge that Lawson could have put the body in a sealed container at his own expense, or tried to find another crematory that would take it among the 100 or so in the state.
In announcing his ruling, Overby said, "I agree that leaving her in the back of the hearse was not a good thing to do but he had not other options.
"It was a problem without an answer," the judge said.
However, the judge found, the state had proved that Lawson was illegally selling pre-need services and that when customers asked for their money back, he couldn't give it to them.
Overby's suspension of Lawson's license is binding but temporary, pending a decision by the board after its Nov. 9 meeting. At that time, the board can decide whether to revoke Lawson's licenses or take some other action.
If the board revokes his license, Lawson could apply to have it reinstated.