A controversial U.S. court case that led to one of Canada’s most spectacular corporate collapses of the 1990s is headed for the big screen.
The Oscar-nominated director of The Queen is reportedly set to give David-and-Goliath treatment to the story of how a Mississippi funeral home owner and his crusading lawyer brought down Loewen Group, the B.C.- based “death-care” empire.
Stephen Frears — the acclaimed British filmmaker who directed last year’s widely lauded portrait of Queen Elizabeth grappling with the death of Princess Diana — is said to be negotiating to direct a film about the landmark 1995 legal battle that led to Loewen’s bankruptcy four years later.
The film, says The Hollywood Reporter, is based on a lengthy 1999 article about the Loewen lawsuit published in The New Yorker.
If it’s anything like the magazine piece, the cinematic adaptation of The Burial is likely to cast former Canadian funeral mogul Ray Loewen in a villainous light, and his courtroom nemeses — white Biloxi businessman Jeremiah O’Keefe, and his black attorney, Willie Gary — as plainspoken underdogs who overcome racial friction to defeat a foreign corporate juggernaut.
Loewen’s planned purchase of two O’Keefe funeral parlours in 1991 — a tiny fraction of the Canadian company’s exponential growth across North America at that time — fell apart over Mr. O’Keefe’s accusations that Loewen Group failed to live up to its side of the bargain.
A Mississippi jury, persuaded by Mr. Gary’s depiction of Loewen as a high-flying, alien marauder, awarded O’Keefe a wildly inflated US$500-million in compensatory and punitive damages.
At the time, Mr. Loewen condemned “the injustice that has been done” and one of his lawyers described the court ruling as legalized “extortion.”
The two sides later settled for a payment in cash and stock options amounting to about US$200-million — a massive payout that staggered Loewen Group and proved to be a key factor in forcing the firm into bankruptcy in 1999.
The company restructured and re-emerged in 2002 — without Ray Loewen at the helm–as Alderwoods Group, a funeral-and-cemetery service that recently merged with Loewen’s former archrival, U.S.-based Service Corp. International.
Mr. Loewen himself has continued, so far unsuccessfully, a legal fight to obtain compensation under NAFTA rules for the Mississippi court’s alleged anti- Canadian bias and the exorbitant damages it awarded to Mr. O’Keefe.
Financial Post columnist Diane Francis has described the award as a “court-sanctioned shakedown in Mississippi” that unfairly ruined Loewen Group and should have prompted loud objections from the Canadian government. . . .
Incidentally, the New Yorker story on which this movie will be based is available here as a PDF file.