Cops and Courts, Preston County

Judge delays ruling on cremains suit against Preston County

KINGWOOD — Preston Circuit Judge Steve Shaffer delayed ruling on a civil case against the county, to give time for the two parties to continue mediation.

Byron Hawthorne sued the Preston County Sheriff’s Department and Preston County Commission in August 2018 over alleged mishandling of his father’s cremains.

In the lawsuit, Hawthorne said he honored his and his father’s shared love for his car by placing a part of his father’s cremated remains in a small urn on his key chain. On June 25, 2018, Hawthorne misplaced the key chain at his workplace, Vapor Oil Field Services, in Preston County.

Another employee turned the key chain over to the sheriff’s department. On June 26, the department returned the key chain to Vapor Oil. The urn was gone, and, “only a small fraction of Mr. Hawthorne’s father’s cremains were present and were in a latex glove,” according to the suit.

On Monday, attorney Jeffrey Zurbuch argued the suit should be dismissed. He said there is no such legal entity as the Preston County Sheriff’s Department and deputies have immunity because they were carrying out their jobs when they tested the cremains to see what they were.

Under questioning by the judge, Hawthorne’s attorney, Matthew Crimmel, said that while he would concede the point on the sheriff’s department, the deputies mishandled personal property and should be held liable as employees of the county commission.

Judge Shaffer noted the two parties were in mediation last week and asked how close they were to reaching a settlement. How he rules on Monday’s motions will impact the case, Shaffer said, and he was willing to delay ruling to give them time to continue mediation.

“I know how I’m going to rule,” Shaffer said. “I’m just going to give you guys a chance to settle.”

He gave them until Dec. 20, which is also when a pretrial conference is scheduled in the matter.

Hawthorne is asking for compensatory damages; judgment with interest; attorney fees, costs and expenses; and any other relief the court deems just. The commission and sheriff’s department are asking the court to dismiss the suit and order Hawthorne to pay their expenses.