Friday, July 6, 2007
S.C.: Court May Apportion Settlement in Wrongful Death Action
But Justices Reject Lower Court Rulings That Would Have Given Bulk of Proceeds to Daughter Rather Than Widow
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A trial court may apportion settlement proceeds among the plaintiffs in a wrongful death action, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.
Orange Superior Court Judge Randell L. Wilkinson correctly found he had jurisdiction to divide a $1.1 million wrongful death settlement between the widow and adult daughter of man killed in a construction accident, the justices said.
They disagreed, however, with Wilkinson’s allocation of a mere 10 percent to the widow on the basis that she and the decedent were on the brink of divorce at the time of his death in May 2001. Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal had affirmed that allocation in Sept. 2005 ruling.
At the time of his death, Raymond Corder had been married eight months to Shaoping Corder, allegedly a former prostitute. Among Corder’s other survivors was an adult daughter from a previous marriage, Lisa R. Corder.
Corder’s widow and daughter separately filed wrongful death actions against a number of defendants including Morrow Equipment Company. Following the consolidation of their cases, Morrow settled with both plaintiffs for a lump sum of $1.1 million.
The plaintiffs then entered into a stipulation that if they failed to agree on how to allocate the damages between themselves, each had the right to seek a further trial on apportionment. At that trial, they further stipulated, each party was allowed to call new witnesses not called at the wrongful death trial.
After the plaintiffs went to trial against the remaining defendants and lost, Corder’s widow filed an seeking to quiet title to the settlement proceeds in their entirety.
Over her objection, Wilkinson ruled he had jurisdiction to apportion the proceeds and set a hearing on the matter. He rejected her argument that Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 377.61—pursuant to which a court determines parties’ respective rights in a wrongful death “award”—applied only to jury awards and not settlement proceeds.
Citing the plaintiffs’ previous stipulation, the judge further said he would consider new evidence in addition to that presented at the wrongful death trial.
At the apportionment hearing, witnesses for Corder’s daughter testified that she had a very close relationship with her father, and that Corder intended on divorcing his wife at the time of his fatal accident. He felt his marriage was a mistake because she continued to work as a prostitute despite her promises to stop, witnesses claimed.
Based on this testimony, the daughter contended the widow’s share of the settlement money should be reduced drastically from what it otherwise would have been.
The widow, however, argued she was entitled to the lion’s share of the proceeds because she would have been legally entitled to support from Corder had he not died during the marriage. Her witnesses testified that the marriage was a good one and that Corder had expressed no intent to divorce his wife.
Wilkinson found the daughter’s witnesses more credible, and concluded the union was “on the verge of ending” and would have lasted “a relatively short period of time” had Corder not died.
Concerning the conflicting testimony about Corder’s intentions to divorce, the judge said:
“[Corder] may not have expressed his state of mind to all of those close to him, but such as life. For reasons that are usually unknown, people often keep secrets from some close friends or relatives and not from others.”
Based on his findings, the judge allocated 90 percent of the settlement proceeds to Corder’s daughter and 10 percent to the widow.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed the award in a 2-1 ruling that provoked a strong dissent from Div. Three Presiding Justice David G. Sills. By endorsing Wilkinson’s reliance on evidence that Corder planned to divorce his wife, the majority was “essentially importing mudslinging fault divorce into wrongful death award allocation,” Sills asserted.
Writing for the high court, Justice Marvin R. Baxter said the trial judge was authorized to apportion the proceeds.
For the purposes of applying Sec. 377.61, there is “no meaningful distinction” between a lump-sum award and lump-sum settlement, he concluded, saying:
“After a jury trial, the trial court must apportion an award among the heirs based on the pecuniary damages suffered by each heir. Similarly, after a settlement, the trial court must apportion the settlement proceeds based on the identical criteria—the pecuniary damages suffered by each heir.”
Moreover, the justice added, having a trial judge apportion recovery in the form of a settlement promotes judicial economy and efficiency.
But Baxter said the collective testimony of the daughter’s witnesses failed to support Wilkinson’s finding that Corder’s marriage would not have lasted long had he lived.
“Although declarations of marital unhappiness and a desire to dissolve a marriage may be considered in corroboration of other evidence offered to prove a marriage is on the verge of ending, such declarations, standing alone, are insufficient to support a finding to that effect,” he wrote.
A surviving spouse’s right to support is not easily defeated by evidence that the marital relationship was strained, the jurist noted.
The parties now face new apportionment proceedings on remand.
The case is Corder v. Corder, 07 S.O.S. 4351.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company