Wrongful Death and Chancery Court
March 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
If you are going to do any wrongful death practice at all, you must familiarize yourself with the MSSC’s decision in the seminal case of Long v. McKinney, 897 So.2d 160 (Miss. 2004), reh den. April 7, 2005.
The decision clarifies many important concepts involved in wrongful death claims, including priority of jurisdiction, the distinction between heirs and wrongful death beneficiaries, allocation of attorneys fees, costs and expenses, representation, conflicts of interest, and control of litigation.
What is important in this case to the chancery practitioner, however, is Justice Dickinson’s exposition on the role of chancery court.
There is much confusion in the bar, and perhaps the bench as well, about exactly what is the proper role of chancery court in wrongful death. Justice Dickinson expounds:
¶59. Perhaps no aspect of wrongful death litigation is more misunderstood and misapplied than the role of the chancery court.[Fn 13] With respect to a wrongful death suit to be pursued in circuit court, chancery jurisdiction should be invoked for the following purposes:
Fn 13. The misunderstanding can be partly attributed to the Uniform Chancery Court Rules, which address petitions for authority to compromise, and petitions for allowance of attorney fees, in wrongful death suits. U.C.C.R. 6.10, 6.12. These rules apply only to wrongful death suits which require chancery jurisdiction. See discussion infra.
¶60. In the event the litigants wish to pursue a claim on behalf of the estate of the deceased, [Fn 14] such estate must, of course, be opened and administered through the chancery court. As is true in all estates administered through the chancery court, chancery approval is required for the appointment of the personal representative of the estate, whether executor, executrix, administrator or administratrix.
Fn 14. We recognize that, because of the limited recovery available to the estate in many cases, litigants may choose, with advice of counsel, to proceed without including a claim on behalf of the personal representative or the estate. As discussed infra, such decision should be made only after full disclosure to all who might benefit from the estate.
¶61. There is no general requirement under law that the personal representative obtain chancery approval to pursue the claims of the estate in the litigation. Nor is there a general requirement that counsel representing the personal representative and the estate in the litigation obtain prior chancery approval of such representation or the agreement for compensation of counsel. However, obtaining such prior approval is a widely accepted and wise practice.[Fn15] Such prior approval will, in most instances, avoid difficulty when the chancellor is approached for an order approving the accountings and the final distribution of estate proceeds, where such payments include compensation to counsel.
Fn 15. This is especially true where counsel representing the estate in the wrongful death litigation has not agreed, and does not intend, to represent the estate generally.
¶62. Where a recovery is had by the estate in the litigation, the proceeds must be administered and distributed though the chancery court in the same manner as other assets of the estate, and counsel for the estate must be paid from estate proceeds or assets, upon approval of the chancery court in the same manner as other debts and obligations of the estate. * * *
¶66. Frequently, wrongful death litigation will involve a minor, either as an heir of the estate, a wrongful death beneficiary, or both. In such cases, the representation of the minor’s interests, and any agreement for the payment of attorney fees from the minor’s share of proceeds, must be approved by a chancellor, as in other cases. [BCP Note: settlement of the minor’s claim must also be approved by the chncellor, in the same manner as any other minor’s settlement.]
Determination of wrongful death beneficiaries.
¶67. Section 11-7-13 provides that wrongful death litigation may be brought by the personal representative of the deceased or by any one or more of several statutory beneficiaries, for the benefit of all entitled to recover. Unless all persons entitled to recover join in the suit, those who do have a fiduciary obligation to those do not. Miss. Code Ann § 91-1-27 (Rev. 2004) provides for a chancery determination of the heirs at law of a decedent; that is, those who inherit in the absence of a will. Although our statutes mandate no specific procedure for the identification of wrongful death beneficiaries, a chancery court may make such determinations. Those bringing the action, together with their counsel, have a duty to identify the beneficiaries, and they should do so early in the proceedings. [Fn 16]
Fn 16. Recognizing that the lack of a specific procedural framework for determining wrongful death beneficiaries is a handicap for practitioners, this Court – in its continuing review of procedural rules – will address this need.
One of the biggest sources of confusion, in my experience, is the disconnect between the status of persons as heirs and as wrongful death beneficiaries. The categories overlap, but they are not the same. A person may be a wrongful death beneficiary, and yet not be an heir. You need to read and stidy the statutes to learn the difference and to be able to identify all of the individuals who must be included. Merely filing an action to determine and discover unknown heirs at law will not identify all the wrongful death beneficiaries.
From a chancellor’s perspective, I think the most important aspect of all is that of the minor’s settlement. You can make any agreement in circuit court about how to settle the wrongful death action, but you can not tie the hands of the chancellor as to whether the settlement is reasonable or adequate for the child(ren), or as the amount of fees to which it is subject, or to its amount.