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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. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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