• No Right to a Jury Trial Exists for the Apportionment of the Settlement Proceeds in a Wrongful Death Action Among Different Families
  • September 19, 2006
  • Law Firm: Clausen Miller PC - Chicago Office
  • Introduction

    In Kim v. Yi, 42 Cal. Rptr. 3d 842 (Cal. App. 2006), the California Court of Appeal held that wrongful death plaintiffs from different families do not have a right to a jury trial to apportion the amount of the settlement proceeds.

    Facts

    In February 2003, a car driven by Elliott Park collided with a car driven by Soowan Lee.  Lee and his passenger, Richard Yi, were killed.  Park’s passenger, Andy Kim, was also killed.  Park was subsequently convicted of vehicular manslaughter and deemed to be at fault in the accident.  The families of all the decedents jointly sued Park and the restaurant where he was drinking the night of the accident.  Those claims were settled for $1,000,000 from the restaurant and $30,000 from Park’s mother, who owned the car that he was driving.

    Kim’s family then filed an amended complaint against the other decedents’ families entitled “complaint for distribution of wrongful death recovery” for a determination of the distribution of the settlement proceeds.  The original defendants, the restaurant and Park’s mother were omitted.

    Before trial, the Yi defendants moved in limine to have the matter heard by the court without a jury.  The court agreed and held a court trial where it awarded $721,296 to the Yi parties, $45,023 to Park’s mother and $263,680 to the Kim parties based on the evidence regarding the relationships between each decedent and his heirs.

    The Park and Kim parties appealed, contending that they were entitled to a jury trial to apportion the settlement proceeds.

    Analysis

    The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling.  It relied on the express language set forth in Code of Civil Procedure §377.61, California’s wrongful death statute, which provides that in wrongful death actions, “damages may be awarded that, under all the circumstances of the case, may be just . . . . The court shall determine the respective rights in an award of the persons entitled to assert the cause of action.”  Even before Section 377 was amended to provide for judicial apportionment, the established procedure was that after the jury decided the amount due from the defendants, the court would apportion the amount to be recovered by each heir.  Canavin v. Pacific Southwest Airlines, 148 Cal. App. 3d 512, 529, 530 (1983)(holding that decedent’s wife and children did not have a right to a jury trial to apportion the judgment against the tortfeasor).

    The court rejected appellants’ argument that §377.61 does not apply to them because it is an “intra-family” statute, which only applies when the competing claims are among the heirs of a single decedent.  In refusing to interpret the statute as containing such a limit, the court referred to Canavin, which stated:

    Because the cause of action for wrongful death is wholly statutory in origin, we are accordingly bound unless there exists a constitutional basis for departing from the clear expression of legislative intent.

    The court also rejected the appellants’ contention that Code of Civil Procedure § 592 requires that in actions for damages or injuries, “an issue of fact must be tried by a jury….”  Appellants argued that a jury would not be asked to divide the settlement amongst the heirs but rather, the jury would be asked to decide the amount of damages each family suffered.  Then, according to the appellants, the portion of the settlement which each heir would actually receive would be decided through a mathematical calculation, based on the jury award.  According to the court, the appellants gave up their right to have a jury decide the amount of damages when they agreed to settle.  Moreover, the amended complaint did not allege that the plaintiffs suffered any injury or damages due to the wrongdoing of the others, only that the wrongful death plaintiffs were unable to agree on the distribution of the settlement proceeds.  Citing Canavin, the court held that these types of apportionment actions are equitable proceedings and thus, no right to a jury trial exists.

    Learning Point: 

    Defendants can rest a bit easier knowing that global settlements in wrongful death actions among several different families will not be undone or otherwise affected because of disagreement amongst the plaintiffs as to the apportionment of that settlement.  If necessary, the trial court will determine the apportionment of the agreed-upon settlement figure only, according to the rules applicable to wrongful death damages.