One of the greatest challenges I face when arguing a case to a jury is the same challenge you face in serving families every day, and that is battling the fear and lack of knowledge that exists in the general public about death care.
Most people don’t want to think about death, what it means or what happens to our bodies when we die. Not coincidentally, the best way for me to connect with a jury and win a case is also the best way for you to connect with the families you serve and protect your business at the same time; that is, to educate them to take away the fear and turn death care into something that is understandable and (at least a little) less scary.
Educating a family in what the processes are, what decisions need to be made and providing them the tools they need to get through their difficult time goes a long way in connecting with a family. While we deal with these issues every day, for many of the families we serve, this is their first experience with death. Keeping that in mind is important and helps us understand what the families need. This is the right way to serve the families who come to us for the care of their loved ones.
In addition to being the right way to serve a family, this helps protect your business. Providing families these tools and helping them through their tough time will be appreciated. This appreciation leads to a feeling of connection. These feelings of appreciation and connection are valuable to the family and to you.
Some of the main complaints I hear from plaintiffs after a lawsuit has been filed is that they didn’t feel like they were paid attention to and felt that their only option was to contact a plaintiffs’ attorney. Studies have shown that the more time a doctor spends with a patient, the less likely that doctor is to be sued by the patient. The same principle can be applied to death care. The more time you spend, the more commitment you show and the more connection you can make with the families you serve, the less likely you are to be sued. When you spend time with a family, connect with them and make them feel like you are invested in them and what they are going through; that feeling of appreciation and connection engenders a level of trust. If there is a problem or concern about something that happened, having that connection and trust often means that you are given the benefit of the doubt, and it allows you to explain any misunderstanding or correct any concerns before the family feels like they have no other option but to call an attorney.
However, I must caution you: While it is good to educate the families you serve, you must stop short of crossing the line to making decisions for them or giving legal advice. Giving the families you serve the tools and information they need to make decisions is good. Crossing that line can be disastrous and cause lawsuits.
Remember, we are here to serve families and help fulfill their and their loved ones’ wishes. We are not here to make decisions for them. I have seen several lawsuits where suit was filed because a family complained that they felt they were railroaded and did not have their wishes fulfilled.
Similarly, just as we are not there to make decisions for the family, we are also not there to give legal advice. Just as families do not know the death care process, they also do not know the laws that govern the process. While it is tempting to share your knowledge of the laws, this is a very bad idea and could expose you to significant liability. While I think it is all right to explain the legal basis for what you and your facility do and your requirements for paperwork, authorizations, etc. (assuming you have a thorough knowledge of the law), I would refrain from providing any guidance about what the family’s rights are or what they should do. If a family does have these questions, the safest thing to do is to advise them to seek counsel from an attorney. Additionally, if your state regulatory agency (funeral service commission or board) has a consumer brochure, website or legal reference page, I would advise you send a family with legal questions there.
Educating the families you serve and providing them the information and tools they need to get through a difficult time can go a long way to protect your business, and is the right thing to do. On the other hand, it’s best to follow the Sargent Joe Friday principle and stick to “just the facts.”