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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. Family court judges never fail to surprise me with their irrational thinking. First of all any man who abuses his wife is not fit to be a parent. A man who can't control his anger should not be allowed around his child unsupervised period. Just because he's never been convicted of abusing his child doesn't mean he won't and maybe he hasn't but a man that has such poor judgement and control is not fit to parent without oversight - only a moron would think otherwise. Secondly, why should the mother have to pay? He's the one who made the poor decisions to abuse and he should be the one to pay the price - monetarily and otherwise. Yes it's sad that the little girl may be deprived of her father, but really what kind of father is he - the one that abuses her mother the one that can't even step up and do what's necessary on his own instead the abused mother is to pay for him???? What is this Judge thinking? Another example of how this world rewards bad behavior and punishes those who do right. Way to go Judge - NOT.

  2. Right on. Legalize it. We can take billions away from the drug cartels and help reduce violence in central America and more unwanted illegal immigration all in one fell swoop. cut taxes on the savings from needless incarcerations. On and stop eroding our fourth amendment freedom or whatever's left of it.

  3. "...a switch from crop production to hog production "does not constitute a significant change."??? REALLY?!?! Any judge that cannot see a significant difference between a plant and an animal needs to find another line of work.

  4. Why do so many lawyers get away with lying in court, Jamie Yoak?

  5. Future generations will be amazed that we prosecuted people for possessing a harmless plant. The New York Times came out in favor of legalization in Saturday's edition of the newspaper.

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