It’s hard to imagine a legal proceeding more painful than one at which parents argue over how to divide the proceeds from a lawsuit following their child’s death.
James and Jennifer had a child who grew up to have serious mental health challenges, and who died of suicide under circumstances that gave rise to a lawsuit which resulted in a financial recovery. In the context of the wrongful death action, the two (separated) parents litigated how the money recovered through the lawsuit should be divided between them.
The process for a wrongful death proceeding is spelled out in MCL 600.2922. It directs the Court to divide the recovered funds in ‘fair and equitable’ manner, taking into consideration the injuries suffered by the respective parties, injuries such as loss of support or loss of society and companionship.
In this case, Jennifer claimed that she was entitled to 100% with no share to James. James claimed he should get 75%, and 25% should go to Jennifer.
The trial judge gave Jennifer what she asked for, finding that all of the loss was suffered by her, and none by James.
The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.
Typical of an opinion written to justify the affirmation of a lower court decision, this panel of the COA recites facts in a manner that seems to intentionally minimize the role James played in his child’s life. Even suggesting that, at times, James’ involvement had a negative impact on his deceased child’s development.
Despite this slant, and notwithstanding the fact that Jennifer was obviously much more involved in the child’s life, it seems clear that James tried in his way to remain attached to his child and to provide some support and guidance. And it seems noteworthy that, shortly before the child took her own life, she Facebook messaged James that she loved him.
In a more compassionate concurrence, one member of the panel writes separately to say that it is unfair to characterize James as a “deadbeat dad.” Noting that, while his relationship may have been imperfect, many parent-child relationships are. Nonetheless, the concurring judge goes along with the all-and-nothing result, finding that James was simply asking for too much. Had he made a more reasonable demand (something less than 75%), the concurring COA judge seems to suggest, the result would have likely been different.
Of course, both the per curium opinion and the concurrence conveniently choose to ignore the fact that, rather than affirming the trial judge, they could easily have remanded the case back to the trial court with the direction to award something to James, albeit less than 75%.