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Strunk Funeral Homes president responds to libel lawsuit

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of March 31, 2022)

Strunk Funeral Homes & Crematory president Mary Kopchak has responded to a libel lawsuit by defending her social-media comments about the owner of a company that claims to have purchased the properties on which her family’s longtime Vero Beach business operates.

The libel suit, filed in late November by Millennium Funeral Home & Crematory owner James Young Jr., is a spinoff of the slow-moving legal drama surrounding the dispute over those properties.

Young also has filed a lawsuit in Tallahassee, where he’s seeking to have the Strunk Funeral Home’s license revoked by the state funeral board, which still hasn’t approved the company’s change of ownership.

In a 13-point answer to the libel action, Kopchak – daughter of Glenn Strunk, who owned and operated the Strunk Funeral Home for 47 years before he died in February 2020 – argues the remarks she posted on a Facebook page were legally protected because they were made in response to news-media coverage of matters under litigation.

Kopchak claims her comments about Young were “pure opinion,” true or substantially true, and made in a good-faith effort to rebut false allegations he made to Vero Beach 32963.

She states in her court filing, in fact, that she “reasonably believed” her comments were true when she wrote them and did not “intentionally, negligently or maliciously” make a false statement in her Facebook post.

Instead, Kopchak claims her comments were made in defense of herself, her siblings and their reputations.

She also argues that Young’s “negligent and intentionally malicious” statements to the newspaper – specifically, his accusation that Kopchak and her siblings stole the business from their stepmother by getting their father to sign documents “on his death bed” – initiated, instigated and justified her public response.

Kopchak’s filing contends Young “encouraged media coverage” of the case and thus “assumed the risk of drawing public comments about himself when he volunteered inflammatory comments to news media about pending litigation (that) might trigger a proportionate or otherwise appropriate response …”

Those responses could include, the filing states: allegations that his statements to the news media were false; questioning his motive for making such statements; and calling into question the propriety of his “unscrupulous attempt to litigate in the press.”

Finally, Kopchak argues that Young “elevated himself” to the status of a “limited public figure” who has invited public comment and scrutiny. As such, she adds, he bears the legal burden of proving her statements were false and that her intent was malicious.

She concludes her defense by claiming: “Plaintiff cannot make inflammatory comments to the media, gain widespread public recognition as a member of the local funeral-home business community and then complain when others respond to disagree with him or defend themselves.”

Reached by phone last weekend, Young said Kopchak was “just responding to what was in the newspaper,” adding that he’s looking forward to getting her deposition.

After a hearing in Vero Beach earlier this month, Circuit Judge Janet Croom ruled last week that Kopchak can be questioned about only the libel case, though Young’s attorneys may “reasonably inquire” about issues that “overlap with issues in other pending litigation” as long as it doesn’t become “abusive.”

Kopchak’s Vero Beach attorney, Kevin Rollin, said his client’s deposition hadn’t yet been scheduled, but he wouldn’t comment further on the case.

“As I’ve said all along, I’d rather let the publicly filed papers do the talking,” Rollin said. “My client does not wish to litigate any legal or personal matter in the press. She continues to believe she will win.”

According to court records, Kopchak appeared to successfully defend her remarks about Young, who worked for Strunk Funeral Home in the 1980s, having been fired by her father – a claim corroborated by one of the business’ long-retired funeral directors.

In a deposition given in January, David Hincemon testified that Young was fired for conduct “unbecoming of a funeral director,” recalling the incident in detail and attributing Young’s behavior to youth and inexperience.

Young, however, still denies that he was terminated – he claims he quit because the funeral home refused to pay him overtime – and said he will bring forward a witness who will testify on his behalf.

“He was a witness to all the events that night,” Young said.

In his libel suit, Young accuses Kopchak of “falsely and maliciously” posting defamatory comments about him on a Facebook page titled “Indian River County Community Round Up” on Nov. 23.

The suit states that the remarks written by Kopchak, who succeeded her father as the Strunk company’s president in the days prior to his death, damaged Young’s reputation for “honesty, integrity and trustworthiness in this community and in his profession.”

Kopchak wrote that Young is “trying to undermine our business, hoping to gain something for which he is not worthy.”

She went on to write: “Unfortunately, unscrupulous people do unscrupulous things, which I am afraid is the case with Jim Young & Dorothy Strunk, as will be shown as our legal matters unfold.”

Dorothy Strunk was married to Kopchak’s father for 40 years until his death. She sold the properties on which the Strunk businesses operate to Young for $3.1 million in June 2021.

Kopchak and her siblings have gone to court to challenge the transaction, arguing that their stepmother didn’t have the authority to sell the properties. 

Young claims in his complaint that Kopchak’s social-media post has subjected him to “hatred, distrust, ridicule, contempt and disgrace,” and that he should be compensated for “mental anguish, torment and humiliation.”