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Justices split on recovery of attorney fees under Adult Wrongful Death Statute

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The Indiana Supreme Court issued three opinions June 29 dealing with what fees are recoverable under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute, holding that attorney fees, litigation expenses, and loss of services can be recovered. Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Robert Rucker dissented in each decision, believing that those fees aren’t allowed under the statute.

The justices granted transfer to the three decisions in which separate Indiana Court of Appeals panels had reached opposite conclusions. In Jeffery H. McCabe v. Commissioner, Indiana Dept. of Insurance, No. 49S02-1010-CV-602, the trial court and intermediate appellate court granted partial summary judgment to the Indiana Department of Insurance on Jeffery McCabe’s attempt to recover attorney fees under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute, Indiana Code 34-23-1-2, following the death of his mother.

The high court focused in on the language in the statute “may include but are not limited to” regarding what damages may be recovered. They noted that the General Assembly designated the General Wrongful Death Statute as Section 1 of I.C. 34-23-1, and the AWDS as Section 2 of Chapter 1 addressing wrongful death generally. The GWDS permits recovery of attorney fees and expenses.

“Considering the GWDS and the AWDS in pari materia and warranting harmonious interpretation, we find that the phrase 'may include but are not limited to' in the AWDS includes the availability of attorney fees and all other elements of damages permitted under the GWDS,” wrote Justice Brent Dickson for the majority.

In his dissent, in which Justice Rucker joined, Chief Justice Shepard wrote that he believed two straightforward principles should have led the court to uphold the decision of the trial judge. The “American Rule” should apply, as the General Assembly did not include the term “attorney fees” in the statute at issue. Also, a statute in derogation of common law must be strictly construed, the chief justice wrote, quoting Justice Dickson’s dissent in Giles v. Brown County ex rel. its Bd. Of Comm’rs, 868 N.E.2d 478, 482 (Ind. 2007), “statutes authorizing recovery for wrongful death, of course, are undeniably in derogation of the common law.”

In Hematology-Oncology of Ind., P.C. v. Hadley W. Fruits, et al., No. 49S05-1106-CV-387, the majority affirmed the award of attorney fees and litigation expenses brought under the Adult Wrongful Death Statute. They held those fees are recoverable under the statute but the provider’s aggregate liability should be limited to the $250,000 cap prescribed by the Medical Malpractice Act. The majority remanded the case to limit the aggregate judgments against Hematology-Oncology of Indiana to a total of $250,000 for the jury’s damage award plus a portion of the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

In Indiana Patient's Compensation Fund v. Beverly S. Brown, No. 49S02-1106-CT-388, the majority affirmed that expenses of administration, contingent attorney fees, and loss of services are recoverable under the AWDS. Those are compensatory damages that remedy actual pecuniary losses, so there’s no reason why these damages shouldn’t be allowed, Justice Dickson wrote, citing the Court of Appeals decision in the case.

Chief Justice Shepard and Justice Rucker dissented again in Fruits and Brown. The chief justice wrote in his Brown dissent that holding that the statute affords recovery for “loss of services” by dependants is contrary to the language of the code and “oxymoronic.”

“This does not mean, of course, that a parent cannot recover damages for the loss of an adult child; it does mean that where recovery for loss of services is a crucial element of the claim the claimant should proceed under the General Wrongful Death Statute,” he wrote.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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