ANNAPOLIS An Eastern Shore, Md. man, who discovered his house was built on an abandoned graveyard, can sue the developer for concealing that fact, the Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The decision allows Thomas J. Carven to pursue his claim that the value of his property was diminished because his lot was the site of a family burial ground at a Worcester County farm where the Holiday Harbor development is located.
The unanimous opinion, written by Judge Alan Wilner, noted that Maryland has extensive laws limiting development of graveyards and regulating the removal of human remains. Those restrictions place limits and potential obligations on property owners, “apart from any personal reluctance to live on top of burial sites with human remains resting barely two feet below ground,” the court said.
The suit had been dismissed in Worcester County Circuit Court, but the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals each ruled that Mr. Carven should be allowed to seek damages based on his claim that the graveyard diminished the value of his property.
The farm was developed by Louis Hickman beginning in 1960, although Mr. Carven and his wife did not acquire their lot until 1986, after it had passed through the hands of two other owners.
Mrs. Carven first learned from business customers in 1994 that there had been a graveyard on her property. She later discovered some bones and what appeared to be a casket handle while digging in her yard.
Sheriff’s deputies found additional bones in the same hole, and a funeral director who examined the yard discovered other apparent grave sites.
The Carvens then filed suit against Vivian Mae Hickman, widow of Louis Hickman, claiming that the presence of the graveyard made their property worthless, and that they will incur substantial costs to have the remains removed to another location.
Their suit was dismissed by Circuit Judge Thomas Groton on the grounds that state law prohibits lawsuits for “defective and unsafe” conditions resulting from improvements made more than 20 years before the suit was filed.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the intermediate court that concealing a graveyard was not an improvement to the property, and that it did not create defective and unsafe conditions.
The unanimous Court of Appeals opinion said the Hickmans were not trying to improve the property by removing the gravestones.
“The conduct at issue is the desecration of the existing graveyard the removal of monuments, markers and other evidence denoting the existence of the graveyard, which effectively concealed the existence of the graveyard,” the opinion said.