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Inmates face tough roads in wrongful-death claims

It’s not easy to maintain a wrongful-death suit from prison.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Aug. 13 that an incarcerated man who repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought to intervene in a wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from his son’s fatal police shooting was out of luck when the suit was dismissed.

Meanwhile, the son of a deceased plaintiff in a high-profile talcum-powder case alleges he was shut out of his mother’s settlement while in prison and is seeking to reopen the agreement a year after it was finalized.

The Supreme Court ruling comes nearly 10 years after the shooting of Darrell Williams Jr. following a high-speed chase in St. Louis. The deceased man’s grandmother filed a wrongful-death suit against the officers, which was litigated for four years before the grandmother voluntarily dismissed her suit just prior to trial in 2014.

During that time, Darrell Williams Sr., the decedent’s father, who was incarcerated on felony drug charges, sent six letters to the St. Louis Circuit Court seeking to intervene in the suit. Missouri law designates the primary plaintiffs in wrongful-death suits as the spouse, children or parents of the deceased, so the grandmother lacked standing to bring the suit at all.

Yet although Williams’ statutory standing to bring the claim was superior to the grandmother’s, the court never ordered the father to be added to the case. By the time the suit was dismissed, the three-year statute of limitations had expired.

In 2016, the Court of Appeals Eastern District affirmed the dismissal of a second lawsuit that Williams’ mother, Kathryn Love, separately filed after the statute of limitations had expired. But then-Judge Lisa Van Amburg wrote at the time that “the justice system turned a deaf ear” to Williams Sr.’s pleas.

Last year, Van Amburg authored a second opinion that resurrected the father’s claim, finding it had survived despite a “perfect storm of procedural missteps.” The Supreme Court, however, disagreed.

Judge Laura Denvir Stith, writing for the unanimous court, said Williams’ pro se efforts to intervene fell short, as he didn’t comply with court rules by serving his motion on the parties or attaching pleadings setting out his claim.

“And, while Mr. Williams was proceeding pro se and minor procedural variations might be anticipated, this Court has repeatedly held the fact that a litigant is not represented by counsel does not authorize him or her to ignore this Court’s procedural rules,” Stith wrote.

Stith added, however, that the case was “tragic, and not only in the facts of the underlying death.”

“In these difficult circumstances, the circuit court had no option other than to overrule Mr. Williams’ motion to set aside and motion to intervene,” she wrote.

Matthew Casey of Casey, Devoti & Brockland, an attorney for Williams, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Claimant Roy J. Webb faces a similar hurdle in St. Louis Circuit Court. Webb’s mother was Clora Mae Webb, whose estate had been a plaintiff in a massive lawsuit by a group of women who alleged they contracted ovarian cancer from Johnson & Johnson-brand talcum powder. The suit resulted in a $4.69 billion award in July 2018 against Johnson & Johnson, which is appealing the verdict.

A separate company, Imerys Talc America, also was named in the suit, but it was dismissed prior to trial after reaching a confidential settlement with the plaintiffs. Clora Mae Webb died in 2014 and had been represented in the suit by her daughter, Glenda North. North died in 2017, leaving her husband, Jackie Herbert North, to carry on the suit.

According to court records, Judge Rex Burlison approved six settlements on Aug. 3, 2018, including one for North’s claim on behalf of Clora Mae Webb. The amount was not disclosed, but in a later order he specified that the amount was to be deducted from the plaintiff’s $213 million share of the actual and punitive damages.

One year later, Roy J. Webb filed a motion seeking to intervene in the case and set aside the order approving the settlement. Webb alleges that, as Clora Mae Webb’s son, he has a claim for wrongful death that Jackie Herbert North, the decedent’s son-in-law, does not.

Roy J. Webb’s name is listed as a potential beneficiary on the settlement agreement signed by the judge, though nothing was allocated to him.

Webb’s Aug. 2 filing says he is incarcerated at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City. He alleges he received notice of the pending settlement by letter less than two weeks before it was approved. He said he had asked prison officials to allow him to attend the settlement hearing but was denied.

“There’s a real question in my mind if notice equals opportunity,” said Steve Sanders of Sanders Law in Kansas City, an attorney for Webb.

Attorneys for North haven’t yet filed any response to the motion. Eric Holland of the Holland Law Firm in St. Louis, an attorney for the talc plaintiffs, said in an interview that Webb received “more than ample” notice. He also said he’s not sure the circuit court can reopen the settlement while the case is on appeal.

“I have full confidence in our courts to sort it all out,” Holland said.

The Supreme Court case is Henry v. Piatchek, SC97385. The St. Louis case is Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson et al., 1522-CC10417-01.