On a wrongful death claim, even if a lawsuit is unnecessary because the defendant pays an agreeable settlement, Missouri law requires a judge to approve the settlement.
“In any action for damages under section 537.080, the trier of the facts shall state the total damages found, or upon the approval of any settlement for which a petition or application for such approval has been filed, the court shall state the total settlement approved. The court shall then enter a judgment as to such damages, apportioning them among those persons entitled thereto in proportion to the losses suffered by each as determined by the court. The court shall order the claimant:
The reason RSMo 537.095 requires the Court to do the above things is two-fold. First, the Court must ensure the settlement is fair and reasonable for the class members. Second, the Court must ensure the proper parties are receiving the wrongful death settlement. For this reason, if and when a St. Louis wrongful death attorney negotiates a settlement on your behalf, he or she must then file a lawsuit to have a Missouri judge approve the proposed settlement and distribution. Sometimes, this results in somewhat of a delay because after the lawsuit if filed, a hearing date must be obtained that works for all attorneys’ schedules and all potential wrongful death class members have to be notified of the settlement- even if they are not represented by a lawyer.
Once the unrepresented class members are notified of the hearing date, they have an opportunity to come before the Court and present evidence about their losses from the decedent’s death. The Court will then weigh all the evidence and make a distribution of the proceeds among the class members according to what the judge believes each person’s losses are.
In a recent wrongful death Missouri lawsuit, the Court of Appeals reversed a trial court because it indicated the trial court misapplied the law in apportioning wrongful death settlement proceeds under 537.095.3 because it (1) failed to take into account life insurance proceeds benefiting the decedent’s wife, daughter, and stepson in determining pecuniary losses pursuant to 537.090, (2) failed to consider past-due child support owed to the decedent’s abandoned son, and (3) seemed to focus on the non-pecuniary factors in §: 537.090 from the decedent’s perspective and not from the vantage point of the son. Banner v. Owsley, 305 S.W.3d 498 (Mo. Ct. App. 2010).
The Banner case essentially recognizes that in the distribution of a wrongful death settlement award, the Court must consider other sources of benefits outside the wrongful death case. The Banner case happened to involve life insurance proceeds. However, Banner can be used to argue other sources of benefit may be considered such as an inheritance. For instance, if the decedent left all his or her assets to one child, the Court can consider this evidence in the distribution of the settlement. In addition, this case also stands for the proposition that debts the decedent owed a class member can be taken into consideration. Taking these matters into consideration can dramatically affect how a Missouri wrongful death settlement will be divided up by the Court.
It is important to understand that just because you are a class representative does not mean you have damages. Here is a hypothetical: A father dies and has two children. The first child is 30 years old and left the family home at 16 years of age and had no contact with the father over the last 14 years. The second child is 28 years of age and went into business with the father and spent time with him every day and enjoyed a great relationship. In this kind of scenario, it would be likely the judge would award the majority, if not all, of the settlement to the second child because that child’s damages are much greater.
A lot of people wonder if they, as an unrepresented class member, need a wrongful death lawyer once a settlement has been reached by another class member. The answer really depends upon the unique circumstances of each case. If there is an agreement for the distribution of the proceeds among the class members, you may not need a someone to look at Missouri wrongful death case. If, on the other hand, there is animosity among the class members and there is no agreement for the distribution of the proceeds, you will want a lawyer to present evidence of your damages at the settlement hearing.
Our law firm reviews the circumstances of all wrongful death claims for free. We can advise you if you actually need a lawyer to represent your interests. Contact us today for a free wrongful death consultation.