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Attorney's fees can come from damages award

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Reasonable attorney's fees may be paid out of the damages award in a wrongful death action, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In Ronald Hillebrand v. The Supervised Estate of Charlotte Fern Large, No. 70A01-0902-CV-72, Ronald Hillebrand, as sole surviving child of Charlotte Fern Large, appealed the trial court's order that directed attorney's fees be deducted from Large's wrongful death settlement.

Large was killed following a car accident and the counsel for the person appointed as personal representative of Large's estate pursued a wrongful-death action. The parties settled, and about $12,000 was to be deposited into the estate and $48,000 to be paid to Hillebrand as her beneficiary.

Counsel for the personal representative then requested the trial court allow payment of the attorney's fees to come from the entire settlement recovery. Hillebrand objected, but the trial court ordered the $6,500 in fees for pursuing the wrongful death action be deducted from the settlement.

Examining Indiana Code sections 34-23-1-1 and 34-23-1-2, and relying on caselaw in Vollmar by Vollmar v. Rupright, 517 N.E.2d 1240 (Ind. Ct. App. 1988), and Thomas v. Eads, 400 N.E.2d 778 (Ind. Ct. App. 1980), the appellate court upheld the trial court's order. The Court of Appeals agreed with the reasoning followed in Thomas in which the trial court noted in a footnote that even though I.C. Section 34-23-1-1 doesn't expressly include attorney fees as recoverable damages in case the decedent leaves dependents or next of kin, attorney's fees are nevertheless included in the list of damages.

Both sections of the wrongful death statute list damages but say damages are not limited to what's listed. The Court of Appeals interpreted the statute to allow in every situation - regardless of whether a widow, widower, dependent, or next-of-kin exists - the recovery of reasonable costs of administering the decedent's estate, including attorney's fees, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

The legislature intended for any damages recovered for the costs of administering the decedent's estate or prosecuting or compromising an action to inure the exclusive benefit of the estate for the payment of such costs, she continued.

"Thus, as attorney fees are to be treated similar to the 'reasonable medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses,' the costs are to be taken from the settlement proceeds for the exclusive benefit of the estate and the estate is responsible for their payment," Judge Riley wrote.

The remainder of damages inure to the exclusive benefit of a nondependent parent or child of the decedent in accordance with I.C. Section 34-23-1-2(d). In addition, because the settlement already allocated the funds which inure to the exclusive benefit of the estate for payment of the expenses, the Court of Appeals directed the attorney's fees also be paid out of the money expressly allocated to the estate.

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  3. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  4. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  5. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

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