Under Missouri Law, a spouse, a child, or a parent of a person who is killed by the tortious conduct of another is entitled to bring suit for their damages, be it the result of an auto accident, medical negligence or a defective product that brings about the death.
Any of those parties, or all or some of them, may join in the lawsuit or claim.
Upon the receipt of proceeds of a wrongful-death claim, be it by trial or settlement, a hearing is required before a court, and the proceeds are to be distributed among all of the parties entitled to sue, whether they participated in the case or not.
In many cases, the family members of the dearly departed are close and come to an agreement on how the net proceeds are to be distributed.
But not always.
In those cases, a judge must decide the apportionment of the net proceeds of the claim among the various family members entitled to share, after a hearing, “in proportion to the losses suffered by each,” according to the statute.
This can be emotional and even ugly in some cases, such as in a case where the child of two parents who aren’t together dies, and they are not in agreement about much of anything, particularly how to apportion the proceeds of a wrongful death settlement after the death of their child.
A case decided this month by the Missouri Court of Appeals illustrates this.
In Macke v. Patton, the 25-year-old son of long-time and bitterly divorced parents perished in a motor-vehicle accident, and the issue was how to divide the net proceeds of a $500,000 settlement.
The evidence at hearing was that Mother and Father got married after Mother got pregnant with Decedent, who was born when Mother was the tender age of 16 years.
Mother and Father divorced within two years after Decedent was born, and Mother, a teenager, went her own way.
At the hearing, Father’s attorney “took an aggressive approach” with Mother, according to the Court of Appeals’ opinion, and confronted her with a scathing examination regarding a prior history of misdeeds and dysfunction, including marital infidelity, illegal drug activity, and a dissipation of her relationship with Decedent in earlier years, during his childhood, while he was raised by Father.
However, Mother’s evidence included that in more recent years, in spite of her nefarious past, she had reconnected with her son, had attended his high school graduation ceremony and party, had attended one of his rock band’s concerts, and had apologized to decedent for being absent in his younger years, which apology elicited his forgiveness.
In more recent years, Mother and Decedent had been in regular contact through text messages and social media, and had discussed plans for another get together prior to his untimely death.
At the hearing, the court, in obvious reliance on Mother’s misdeeds of the past, apportioned to Father 98 percent of the settlement proceeds ($490,000.00) and Mother 2 percent ($10,000.00).
Mother appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed and rejected the apportionment of 98 percent and 2 percent.
In its opinion, the Court of Appeals directed that apportionment of loss on account of a death is a “forward-looking inquiry,” not a mechanism to punish a surviving family member on account of past failures.
The Court of Appeals noted that the statute requires the court to consider what each person is likely to suffer in the future, including the “reasonable value of services, consortium, companionship, comfort, instruction, guidance, counsel, training, and support.”
While past circumstances may have some bearing on future losses, the court noted, the apportionment in this case was way out of line, and the case was sent back to the trial court for a re-apportionment based on the “forward looking” analysis directed by the Court of Appeals in its opinion.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.