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Judges disagree on whether Rhode Island law applies in wrongful death case

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A Court of Appeals judge dissented from her colleagues’ decision that Rhode Island law should apply in awarding a wrongful death settlement because she believed that the Rhode Island court would have found Indiana law applies.

Eddie G. Showley, as executor of the estate of Phillip J. Showley, appealed a trial court order distributing wrongful death proceeds to Tracey Kelsey, individually and as successor personal representative of the estate of Sonya Sue Showley. Eddie Showley is Phillip’s adult son; Kelsey is Sonya Showley’s adult daughter.

Sonya Showley died in 2006 in Indiana due to a defective hernia patch, which was made by a Rhode Island company. Phillip Showley became administrator of his wife’s estate and pursued a wrongful death action, but he died while the action was pending in Rhode Island. Kelsey, now administrator of her mother’s estate, accepted a $292,500 wrongful death entitlement as a settlement and sought partial distribution of the award. The Indiana trial court awarded her the wrongful death settlement as the sole surviving beneficiary of Sonya’s estate pursuant to the laws of Rhode Island. Eddie Showley claimed that the wrongful death proceeds should have been distributed pursuant to I.C 34-23-1-1 and thus, Phillip Showley’s estate would have been the sole beneficiary.

Relying on Matter of Estate of Bruck, 632 N.E.2d 745 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994), in which the COA approved the distribution of wrongful death proceeds in accordance with Ohio law, the majority affirmed the distribution to Kelsey based on Rhode Island law in Eddie G. Showley, Executor, Estate of Phillip J. Showley v. Tracey Kelsey, Individually and as Successor Personal Representative of the Estate of Sonya Sue Showley, 09A04-1301-ES-22.

“Phillip, as initial administrator of Sonya’s estate, filed a suit for wrongful death based on the laws of Rhode Island. In his complaint, Phillip requested to be awarded punitive damages for Sonya’s wrongful death. Pursuant to Rhode Island, punitive damages are permitted under the wrongful death statute, whereas this award cannot be made under Indiana law,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote.

“Because a recovery only exists under the law of Rhode Island, its distribution cannot be separated and must be enforced in accordance with Rhode Island statute in order to preserve the integrity of the underlying substantive right.”

In her dissent, Judge Elaine Brown believed lex loci delicti should control distribution of the proceeds instead of the significant relationship test.

“Indeed, my review of applicable Rhode Island law reveals that, had this matter proceeded to trial, the Rhode Island court would have decided to apply Indiana’s wrongful death statute,” she wrote. “Thus, Eddie, as Philip’s sole heir, is entitled to Philip’s share of the proceeds of Showley’s settlement, which is the remainder of the settlement proceeds after payment to Showley’s estate of ‘reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expense[s],’ Ind. Code § 34-23-1-1, because Kelsey did not demonstrate that she is a dependent child.”

 

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