Clark v. Bamberger et al

Filing 127

OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 3/28/16. (djy, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, SOUTHERN DIVISION JENNIFER CLARK, as ) personal representative of ) the estate of Jeremy ) Clark, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) v. ) ) JOEY BAMBERGER, et al., ) ) Defendants. ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:12cv1122-MHT (WO) OPINION Plaintiff Jennifer Clark, as personal representative of the estate of her deceased husband Jeremy Clark, filed this wrongful-death suit against defendants Joey Rolls-Royce Bamberger, Communications Army Corporation Fleet Corporation. and Support, its LLC, Jurisdiction employee and is L-3 proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity). This case is before the court on the parties’ joint motion to approve their settlement and the distribution of settlement proceeds. The parties seek the court’s approval because the decedent’s two minor children will be recipients reasons of discussed part of the below, settlement. For the settlement will be the approved. This case arises out of a tragic accident in which Jeremy Clark, a civilian helicopter-training pilot employed by the Army, was killed when the helicopter he was piloting crashed during a training exercise at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Defendant Rolls-Royce, the manufacturer of the helicopter’s engine, had contracted with the Army to assist in troubleshooting technical problems with the Clark’s helicopter. type of engine used in decedent There had been a technical problem with the engine days before the crash, and defendant Bamberger, a Rolls-Royce employee, troubleshooting the problem. was involved in Plaintiff Clark contends that Bamberger’s failure to complete certain steps in troubleshooting the problem led to the crash. She also asserts that employees of defendants Army Fleet Support and L-3 Communications were involved in the inspection, 2 service, maintenance, and repair of the aircraft, and that their defendants numerous errors denied also led liability defenses, and to for filed the the crash. crash, motions The asserted for summary judgment and to exclude expert testimony offered by the plaintiff. The lawsuit. against parties have now settled all claims in the Plaintiff has agreed to settle her claims Rolls-Royce and Bamberger in exchange for a payment of $ 8 million in full and final satisfaction of any and all claims that were or could have been asserted by plaintiff arising out of the accident. Plaintiff has also agreed to settle her claims against Army Fleet Support and L-3 Communications in exchange for a payment of $ 500,000 in full and final satisfaction of any and all claims that were or could have been asserted by her arising out of the accident. Rolls Royce has deposited its settlement funds with the clerk of court. 3 Under Alabama’s decedent’s two wrongful-death minor children statute, will significant part of this settlement. the receive a Accordingly, and based on a motion by plaintiff, the court appointed a guardian ad for hearing evidentiary litem on the the children motion and to held approve an the settlement. At the hearing, the court heard testimony from the guardian ad litem and plaintiff, who is the children’s mother. litem fair Both the children’s mother and the guardian ad opined and protected that that the the during settlement children’s their was money minority and reasonable would be beyond. and well The parties explained the proposed deposit of each child’s portion of the settlement in a trust set up for that child and administered by an experienced trustee. The funds will be invested by the trustee and disbursed for each child’s necessities if their mother cannot meet her duty of support, or, if she can, for necessities beyond the mother’s duty of support. 4 any Once a child is over the age of 18, the trustee will begin to disburse expenses, the funds to purchase needed the of and in child a car, and educational other discretion of major expenses as trustee. Each child would begin to receive income from the trust at the age of 21. the for the At the age of 25, when the child has developed in maturity, the child will receive control of a significant portion of the principal; the child will receive another significant portion at age 30, and the remainder at age 35, at which point the trust will terminate. The parties also explained that 40 % of the total settlement would go to pay plaintiff’s counsel’s fees, and that expenses would be also reimbursed from the settlement funds. from the remainder Fees and expenses will be deducted settlement between funds plaintiff before and the division of children. the The parties also represented that plaintiff will satisfy and resolve all liens and subrogation interests arising out of the accident using the settlement funds paid to 5 her, not the children’s settlement funds. Clark agreed that the fees for the guardian ad litem would come out of her funds, not the children’s. Having reviewed the pleadings, motions, briefs, and evidence in this case and heard a detailed explanation of the settlement, the court finds that all the terms and provisions of the proposed settlement are in the best interests of the minor children and are fair, just, and reasonable under the circumstances involved in this case. It reaches this conclusion for several reasons. First, the case presented difficult legal issues regarding that These causation, could have included privilege, been decided difficult and expert against questions testimony either regarding side. whether the plaintiff could prove causation in the absence of a definitive record of what caused the helicopter to crash, and the novel question whether a governmental privilege relying would upon prevent information plaintiff’s from 6 a experts redacted from government accident report plaintiff. question that The would, the government court’s in released resolution turn, have of to the impacted the latter whether plaintiff’s experts could testify to causation at all. The settlement parties and eliminated the that potential for uncertainty many all years more for of litigation and attendant expense. Second, the amount of the settlement was within the range of verdicts received in wrongful-death cases in Alabama. Under Alabama's Wrongful Death Act, 1975 Ala. Code § 6-5-410, only punitive damages, not compensatory damages, are recoverable. and Pool 1992). Inst., Inc., See, e.g., King v. Nat'l Spa 607 So. 2d 1241, 1246 (Ala. Plaintiff points out a number wrongful-death verdicts in Alabama that were lower--or were reduced by the Alabama Supreme Court to an amount lower--than the total settlement here. Ass'n v. 981 (reducing Tyler, $ 5.5 So. million See, 2d e.g., 1077, Mobile 1106 wrongful-death Infirmary (Ala. award 2007) to $ 3 million); Boles v. Parris, 952 So. 2d 364 (Ala. 2006) 7 (affirming $ 1.275 million wrongful-death award); Mack Trucks, Inc. v. Witherspoon, 867 So. 2d 307, 309 (Ala. 2003) (reducing $ 25 million wrongful-death award to $6 million); 1204, Lance, 1221 Inc. (Ala. v. 1999) Ramanauskas, (reducing 731 $ 13 So. 2d million wrongful-death award to $ 4 million); Tillis Trucking Co., Inc. v. Moses, 748 So. 2d 874, 887-891 (Ala. 1999) (reducing $ 7 million wrongful-death award to $ 1.5 million). The value of these cases as comparators is somewhat limited by the differences in facts between those cases in this one. involved wealth For example, most of the cited cases defendants than that (presumably) Rolls-Royce, and the had wealth far of less the defendant is a relevant--but not determinative--factor that juries may consider in determining the size of a punitive-damages award, and that courts may consider in reviewing the legality of such awards. Co. v. Hornsby, 539 So. 2d 218, 223 See Green Oil (Ala. 1989) (listing the “financial position of the defendant” as a 8 relevant factor in determining the appropriateness of a jury’s punitive-damage award); see also BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 591 (1996) (“Since a fixed dollar award will punish a poor person more than a wealthy one, one can understand the relevance of this factor to the Nevertheless, value as awards State's the cited comparators; were interest reduced cases are further, reflect in the retribution.”). still the of cases close in punitive-damages awards against corporations may be reduced on appeal. (reducing $ 2 million punitive-damages BMW because it was excessive); Ins. Co. (finding v. Campbell, $ 145-million 538 U.S. which scrutiny courts apply to large punitive-damages awards. even general that Indeed, very large See, e.g., id. award against State Farm Mut. Auto. 408, punitive-damages 418-429 award (2003) against State Farm excessive under Due Process Clause). In light of these precedents and the difficult legal hurdles plaintiff faced in proving her case, the total settlement amount here is appropriate. 9 Moreover, the significantly Rolls-Royce higher defendants settlement makes sense, as with the the evidence (submitted with motions and briefs) was significantly stronger against them than against the other defendants. The court also finds the trusts for each minor’s portion of the settlement funds, as described on the record, to be in the best interest of the minor. The graduated release of trust funds seems eminently wise. Finally, the court must scrutinize the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee contract, as it will affect the children’s net recovery. court abuses without its discretion carefully factors ... elaborated in when it “A district allows considering Johnson v. Ga. a fee the Highway Express, Inc., 488 F.2d 714, 717-19 (5th Cir. 1974).” Hoffert v. Gen. Motors Corp., 656 F.2d 161, 166 (5th Cir. 1981).* These 12 Johnson factors are: (1) the * See Bonner v. City of Pritchard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1209 (11th Cir. 1981) (en banc) (holding that decisions of the former Fifth Circuit rendered prior to 10 time and labor required; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions; (3) the skill required to perform the legal services properly; (4) the preclusion of other employment by the attorney due to acceptance of the case; (5) whether the the customary fee is fee fixed in or the community; contingent; (7) (6) time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount involved and the results obtained; (9) the experience, reputation, and ability of the attorneys; (10) the “undesirability” of the case; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship with the client; and (12) awards in similar cases. Johnson, 488 F.2d at 717–19. In light of the Johnson factors, the contingency fee in this case is reasonable. this case clearly has required labor from plaintiff’s counsel. substantial 40 % First, time and Plaintiff’s attorneys, over a period of several years, engaged in apparently extensive discovery (based on the evidence submitted close of business on September 30, 1981, are binding in the Eleventh Circuit). 11 with the briefing), filed motions to compel, retained and produced reports from three experts, and filed necessarily lengthy, well drafted briefs in response to multiple substantive and complex defense motions. In sum, this case has taken significant time that likely could have been devoted to other cases. Furthermore, as discussed above, this case presents numerous difficult required a very effectively; legal high issues level plaintiff’s of and has skill attorneys, therefore to who litigate are highly skilled in the court’s estimation, have done so. They obtained a good result for their client. Alabama’s rules of professional conduct do not set an upper limit for contingency fees, instead requiring that they not be “clearly excessive.” Con. 1.5(a). Ala. R. Prof. As stated at the hearing, plaintiff’s counsel has expended hundreds of thousands of dollars on the pretrial litigation of this case. “When an attorney accepts a client on a contingent-fee basis, the attorney assumes the 12 risk of nonpayment for expenses and is acting at his own peril. ‘If someone is willing to take the great risk of giving up the sure quantity for the uncertain, and wins, then the uncertain prize should be worth more than the certain one.’” Madison Cnty. Dep't of Human Res. v. T.S., 53 So. 3d 38, 56 (Ala. 2009). Here, plaintiff’s counsel faced a considerable risk of not recovering at all due to the highly circumstantial nature of the evidence in the case. Given this risk, the high cost of litigating the case, and the skill with which it was litigated, 40 % is not excessive. An appropriate judgment will be entered. DONE, this the 28th day of March, 2016. /s/ Myron H. Thompson UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 13

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