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Missouri Supreme Court rolls back wrongful-death apportionment standard

A dispute stemming from how wrongful-death settlement funds should be distributed has led the Missouri Supreme Court to roll back the standard for appellate review in such cases.

In a unanimous ruling July 16, the court affirmed a lower-court judgment that allotted 98 percent of a $500,000 wrongful -death settlement to Loren Macke, and 2 percent to Pamela Eden.

The two are the parents of Nicklaus Macke, 25, who was killed in a vehicle crash in 2017, according to the opinion, which was written by Judge Zel M. Fischer.

Missouri Supreme Court

Missouri Supreme Court

Loren Macke reached the settlement with the insurer for the allegedly at-fault driver, Austin Patton. St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser was asked to approve the settlement and apportion the proceeds.

Shortly before the hearing, however, Eden told the court she had just learned of the purpose of the hearing. The court delayed the hearing for a week, as Eden lived in Alabama and didn’t yet have a lawyer. At the rescheduled hearing, the judge denied her request for another continuance.

Sengheiser heard evidence that Loren Macke and Eden divorced shortly after Nicklaus was born, and that Macke was granted custody of the boy while Eden was granted supervised visits. The evidence also showed that Eden was absent during much of Nicklaus’ childhood, according to the opinion.

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Sengheiser approved a judgment giving Loren Macke 98 percent of the settlement, amounting to $490,000, and giving Eden 2 percent of the settlement, or $10,000.

Eden appealed. In 2018, the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District sided with her, reversing and remanding the case. The Missouri Supreme Court later granted transfer of the case.

Eden argued on appeal that Sengheiser’s judgment erroneously applied the law and was against the weight of the evidence. The court disagreed on both points.

The court also examined the appropriate standard of appellate review for apportionment determinations and opted to reset the standard.

In a footnote, Fischer wrote that prior appellate decisions have strayed from the proper standard of review, the Murphy standard, to include review of an apportionment if it is “grossly excessive or inadequate.”

The Murphy standard, from the Missouri Supreme Court’s 1976 case Murphy v. Carron, is that an appellate court will affirm a circuit court’s judgment unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence or erroneously applies the law.

Fischer called the additional language “unnecessary and unwarranted” and said it traces back to a 1985 Missouri Court of Appeals case, Farr v. Schoeneman. He said the court in that case incorrectly applied the “grossly excessive” language to wrongful-death settlement apportionment proceedings, “without any legal justification or citation to appropriate legal authority.”

Fischer said cases that suggest appellate courts should interfere with a judgment if it is “grossly excessive or inadequate” no longer should be followed, as well as cases holding that appeals courts may review apportionment proceedings under the abuse of discretion standard.

Anthony S. Bruning of The Bruning Law Firm in St. Louis represented Loren Macke. He said the court “rightfully adhered to the standard of appellate review in a wrongful-death apportionment.”

“This decision will bring clarity, stability and predictability in what is a sensitive area of family law,” he said.

Shaun Falvey of Goldblatt + Singer in St. Louis represented Eden. He said he and his client are disappointed in the ruling.

“It’s a tremendous deviation from the opinion that was issued by the court of appeals, and it seems to stand for the proposition that the trial court is going to have virtually unlimited discretion in these apportionment hearings,” he said.

The case is Macke and Eden v. Patton, SC97599.