ILNews

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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  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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