A central Montana county will move its coroner's office to neutral ground after a Lewistown funeral home sued the county for housing its coroner's office in a rival funeral home owned by the coroner.
The settlement to consolidate the Fergus County coroner's and sheriff's offices was approved during the county commission's meeting Nov. 15. It will also include a payment of $5,000 to Creel Funeral Home, which filed the lawsuit last year.
The two Lewistown-based funeral homes are the only such businesses operating in the county, although a crematorium also offers services in the town.
In the complaint, filed Aug. 24, 2016, in Fergus County District Court, Creel's owners alleged that Fergus County Coroner Dick Brown "assigns bodies to his private business and benefits financially from the sale of funerary items and performing funeral services from those assignments."
While the coroner's office still operates out of Brown's Cloyd Funeral Home, it will be moved over to the Fergus County Sheriff's Office to "avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest" beginning in 2019, County Attorney Kent Sipe said Tuesday.
"The first point of contact with the deceased person's family would be with the sheriff's office" under the new setup, Sipe said.
Prior to the lawsuit being filed, Creel had requested a policy change from the county multiple times, according to the complaint. At the county's request, both Sipe and an attorney with the Montana Association of Counties reviewed the arrangement, the latter finding that Brown's business had a "built-in advantage" as a result of his position.
The settlement will become official once Creel's owners sign onto it.
"Our whole reason behind this is we feel it's a conflict to have the coroner's office in the funeral home," said Ralph Mihlfeld, who co-owns Creel with his wife.
Mihlfeld said he's satisfied with the outcome of his lawsuit, although it's difficult to tell whether the prior arrangement had a negative impact on his business.
"That would be speculation," he said. "We simply needed to make a change."