Before Bridges, C.j., Diaz, And Coleman, JJ.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J., For The Court:
THIS OPINION IS NOT DESIGNATED FOR PUBLICATION AND MAY NOT BE CITED, PURSUANT TO M.R.A.P. 35-B
DATE OF JUDGMENT: 11/28/95
TRIAL JUDGE: HON. E. G. CORTRIGHT, JR.
COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HOLMES COUNTY CHANCERY COURT
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - WRONGFUL DEATH
TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: MOTION TO DISQUALIFY COUNSEL AND MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL DENIED.
MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED:
This case began with the appellees' petition to determine the heirs at law of Christopher Hawkins, who was killed while riding in an automobile which collided with a train at an Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) crossing in Holmes County. Also killed in the collision were Lou Bertha Cox, mother of Christopher Hawkins and driver of the automobile, and a second passenger, Terry Hawkins, another son of Lou Bertha Cox and Christopher Hawkins's half-brother. Cox was survived by a third son, Demetrius Hawkins, who is one of the appellees in the case sub judice.
On its motion made ore tenus , the chancellor entered an order allowing ICRR, operator of the train, to intervene in this case. Counsel for Demetrius Hawkins, Lucious Robinson, and the remainder of Robinson's children, did not object to ICRR's intervention. Now, ICRR appeals from an order entered by the Chancery Court of Holmes County which denied its motions to disqualify counsel for appellees and for new trial. ICRR moved to disqualify counsel for appellees because of an alleged conflict of interest between Demetrius Hawkins and the remaining appellees, Lucious Robinson, whom the chancellor adJudged to be Hawkins's father, and the rest of Robinson's children. This Court finds that the presumption of correctness which attends any decision of a trial court and the degree of adjudicatory deference to which the chancellor is entitled require an affirmance of the chancellor's denial of ICRR's motions to disqualify counsel for appellees and for new trial.
On September 14, 1994, the collision in the Mileston community between ICRR's train and the automobile driven by Lou Bertha Cox claimed the lives of the driver and her two sons, Christopher and Terry Hawkins. Relevant to our resolution of the issues in this case, however, are: (1) the consanguineous relationships involved in the issues in this case, (2) the course of litigation to establish those relationships, and (3) the manner in which the parties, whose familial relationships were at stake, were represented by their counsel. We begin with a delineation of the consanguinity of Ms. Cox's three sons.
Ms. Cox's only immediate survivor, Demetrius Hawkins, was the oldest of her three sons. He testified that he was born in 1973 and that his father, who lived in Alabama, was David Lee Carter.
Christopher Hawkins was born on October 23, 1974, the son of Lucious Robinson and Lou Bertha Cox. Lucious Robinson was also the father of Shuntai Robinson, Sherita Robinson, Juanita Robinson, Kevin Mabry, and Tibithal O. Selders. Although the rest of Robinson's children were related by half-blood to Christopher Hawkins, they would become his wrongful death beneficiaries, or heirs, pursuant to Section 11-7-13 of the Mississippi Code of 1972, if Lucious Robinson were adjudicated Christopher's father.
Although the identity of Terry Hawkins's heirs are not relevant to our resolution of the issues in this case, a full understanding of the course of litigation in the case sub judice requires that the proposed heirs-at-law of Terry Hawkins be identified. Terry Hawkins's father was alleged to be Alvin P. Haymer. Alvin P. Haymer was also the father of Alvin Haymer, Jr., Dennis Haymer, Ira Haymer, Miller Haymer, Annette Haymer Fort, Larry Haymer, and Stephanie Haymer Perkins.
On May 26, 1995, Demetrius Hawkins, Lucious Robinson, Robinson's five remaining children, Alvin P. Haymer, and Haymer's seven remaining children filed a complaint against ICRR, the engineer, and the conductor of the train which collided with Ms. Cox's automobile in the Circuit Court of Holmes County. In their complaint, these litigants sought damages for the wrongful death of Ms. Cox and her two sons, Christopher and Terry. Ten days later, on June 5, 1995, Lucious Robinson, his five children, and Demetrius filed a petition to determine heirship in cause number
95-0217 of the Chancery Court of Holmes County. In their petition, they explained that they desired "to compromise and settle their wrongful death claims resulting from the accident in which Christopher Hawkins was killed," but that to do so, it was "necessary that a judicial determination be made as to the rightful heirs at law and statutory wrongful death beneficiaries of Christopher Hawkins, deceased... to protect the potential defendants from further claims and to insure that the persons rightfully entitled to any proceeds receive same." Although not a part of the record in the case sub judice, Alvin P. Haymer and Demetrius Hawkins filed a similar petition to determine heirship of Terry Hawkins in cause number 95-0216 of the Holmes County Chancery Court.
The singularly important fact in this case is that the Barrett Law Offices of Lexington (the Barrett firm) and the firm of Byrd & Associates (the Byrd firm) of Jackson represented all the petitioners in both petitions to determine heirship and all plaintiffs in the complaint for damages filed against ICRR, the conductor, and the engineer in the Holmes County Circuit Court.
On July 20, 1995, the Chancery Court of Holmes County entered an order allowing intervention by which it granted ICRR's motion, made ore tenus , to intervene in the petition to determine heirship filed by Demetrius Hawkins, Lucious Robinson, and the rest of Robinson's children. In the order of intervention, the chancellor recited that the Court had been "advised that Petitioners have no objection to the intervention by [ICRR] in this Cause," and one member of both the Barrett firm and the Byrd firm signed the order beneath the word "APPROVED." In its intervening complaint, ICRR charged that "[t]he claims of the Petitioners seeking a determination that these persons (other than Demetrius Hawkins) are the correct and lawful death beneficiaries of Christopher Hawkins should be denied...." ICRR concluded its intervening complaint by moving the Court to enter a decree naming Demetrius Hawkins as the sole and only wrongful death beneficiary of Christopher Hawkins, and precluding and denying the claims of all other persons (Lucious Robinson and his kindred) who claim standing as wrongful death beneficiaries." ICRR did not charge the Barrett and the Byrd firms with a conflict of interest in their representation of the Robinson and the Haymer families in its intervention complaint.
After the Robinsons and Demetrius Hawkins had filed their answer to intervening complaint, the chancellor tried the case on November 2, 1995. No person other than the petitioners appeared to assert a claim of being an heir of Christopher Hawkins, and no party contested the parent-child relationship of Lucious Robinson to any of his other children. We reserve further review of the evidence adduced during the trial for our analysis and resolution of the issues which ICRR presents in their appeal.
After all parties had rested on November 5, the chancellor rendered an opinion on November 14, 1995, in which he opined:
In summary, the evidence establishes that Lucious [Robinson] was the father of Christopher [Hawkins], that he openly treated him as his own child, and that he never refused or neglected to support Christopher. The Court finds that Lucious [Robinson] and his children are entitled to be recognized as legal heirs of Christopher [Hawkins] along with Demetrius and as such they constitute Christopher's wrongful death beneficiaries.
Two weeks later, on November 27, ICRR filed a "motion to disqualify counsel and motion for new trial in [the] Robinson case and motion for continuance in [the] Haymer case and brief in support" jointly in cause number 95-0216, the Terry Hawkins heirship matter, and cause number 95-0217, the Christopher Hawkins heirship matter. For the first time, ICRR raised by pleading the issue of a conflict of interest in the Barrett and Byrd firms' representation of Demetrius Hawkins and the remaining members of the Robinson and the Haymer families.
To demonstrate the conflict of interest, ICRR argued that the financial interests of Demetrius Hawkins were "diametrically opposed" to the financial interests of the remainder of the Robinson and the Haymer families. Their interests were diametrically opposed because as Christopher Hawkins's sole heir-at-law, Demetrius Hawkins would be entitled to receive 100% of any settlement with or judgment against ICRR, but by adding Lucious Robinson and his five other children, Demetrius Hawkins's share of that portion of the judgment or settlement could only be one-seventh, or 14.3%. Similarly, by adding Alvin P. Haymer and his six children, Demetrius Hawkins's share of the portion of any judgment or settlement for damages for the wrongful death of Terry Hawkins could only be one-eighth, or 12.5%. ICRR further stressed the ambivalence, if not ambiguity, of the evidence contained in Demetrius Hawkins's deposition and adduced during the trial that Demetrius Hawkins understood whether it would be in his financial interest for the remaining members of the Robinson and the Haymer families to be declared heirs along with Demetrius Hawkins. ICRR then charged that the Barrett and the Byrd firms had violated Rule 1.7 of the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct. *fn1
In the Conclusion to its motions to disqualify counsel and for a new trial, ICRR acknowledged that it was "extremely cognizant and respectful of this Court's comment that at the Robinson hearing... these conflicts issues were not before this Court." ICRR requested that the chancery court:
(1) disqualify these law firms from representation of all parties to this litigation;
(2) grant a new trial with regard to the Robinson litigation pursuant to Rule 59 of the Mississippi ...