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Court reduces attorney fees awarded to pay firm by $1 million

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The Indiana Court of Appeals Wednesday found that an estate of a man with dependents can recover attorney fees under the General Wrongful Death Statute, but the trial court erred in how it calculated the amount the law firm will receive.

SCI Propane and other defendants appealed the award of “reasonable” attorney fees to Courtney Frederick, as personal representative of the estate of Stephen Frederick. Her husband was killed when a gas propane tank exploded on the property of William and Betty Kindle. They had recently changed the gas-control valve for their water heater, and neither SCI, nor Midland-Impact LLP, which was hired by SCI to fill the Kindles’ propane tank, re-tested the system after the Kindles’ repair.

The explosion and fire injured six other family members and led to a liability lawsuit filed by the victims.  A jury awarded the plaintiffs $27 million in damages, which was reduced based on the finding William Kindle was 35 percent at fault.

Frederick’s estate received more $3.7 million after the parties settled on the issue of damages, and the settlement did not include attorney fees. Those fees are at the heart of the appeal in SCI Propane, LLC; South Central Indiana Rural Electric Membership Corporation; et al v. Courtney Frederick, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Stephen Frederick, deceased, 55A04-1211-PL-586.

The defendants argue that the GWDS does not allow for the estate to recover attorney fees, as the statute does not explicitly say that attorney fees are recoverable when a decedent is survived by a spouse, dependent children or dependent next of kin. The defendants also argue that the trial court erred when it granted the estate nearly $2.33 million to pay attorney fees to Faegre Baker Daniels. The trial court held under the GWDS, the fee recovery should be based on a reasonableness standard, but the defendants claimed the estate was entitled to recover only under the terms of its contingency fee contract with FBD.

The Court of Appeals decided that attorney fees are recoverable under the first part of the GWDS because those fees are the “type” of damages contemplated by the statute; such a conclusion comports with the court’s principles of statutory construction; and the Legislature has “acquiesced” to the recoverability of attorney fees.

But the amount the estate can recover should have been limited to the amount it was required to pay FBD under its contingency fee agreement, Judge Rudolph Pyle III wrote. The award of attorney fees under the statute is compensatory in nature, and an aggrieved party should not be put in a better position than had the tort not occurred.

The trial court’s award of damages places the estate in a much better position than it would have been through its contingent fee agreement. The estate owes FBD 33 and 1/3 percent of its recovery from the settlement, which equals a little more than $1.244 million. But the estate was awarded more than $2.3 in attorney fees.

The case is remanded for the trial court to enter a revised award of attorney fees that is consistent with the attorney fee damages the estate incurred under its contingency fee agreement.
 

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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