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Shortie v. George

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

May 23, 2017

CHARLES SHORTIE APPELLANT
v.
ROCHELLE GEORGE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS THE PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR AND ON BEHALF OF THE WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES OF ONER K. SHORTIE, DECEASED APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 06/01/2015

         SUNFLOWER COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT TRIAL HON. RICHARD A. SMITH TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: WILLIAM R. STRIEBECK ROBERT A. BIGGS III

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: JAMES BYRNES GRENFELL

          BEFORE GRIFFIS, P.J., FAIR AND WILSON, JJ.

          GRIFFIS, P.J.

         ¶1. This appeal considers whether Mississippi or South Carolina law should govern the distribution of settlement funds in a wrongful-death action where a South Carolina resident was killed in a motor-vehicle accident in Mississippi. The circuit court determined that Mississippi law would govern who the proper beneficiaries were and the amount each would take. We affirm and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. Charles and Oner Shortie were married residents of South Carolina. Oner had five adult children from a previous marriage: Rochelle George, Stephanie Nobles, Erlene Alexander, Rebecca Rogers, and Kristopher Alexander. On March 26, 2014, Charles and Oner were involved in an accident in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Oner died as a result of the injuries she sustained.

         ¶3. On April 3, 2014, Rochelle filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Sunflower County, Civil Action No. 2014-0088. Rochelle filed the complaint individually and as the personal representative of the decedent. The complaint asserted a wrongful-death action, pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated section 11-7-13 (Rev. 2004), and demanded damages for the benefit of Oner's wrongful-death beneficiaries.

         ¶4. In May 2014, Charles filed a petition for formal probate of Oner's estate in South Carolina. In August, the South Carolina court appointed Charles as the personal representative of Oner's estate. The court also ruled that Oner died intestate and determined that Oner's only known heirs were Charles and Oner's five adult children from a previous marriage.

         ¶5. On September 8, 2014, Charles's attorneys entered their appearance in Rochelle's lawsuit. Charles's pleading also expressly "join[ed] in the complaint filed ... by Rochelle ... as personal representative on behalf of all wrongful-death beneficiaries of Oner." In February 2015, Charles filed his own complaint in the circuit court, Civil Action No. 2014- 0271. Charles was the only named plaintiff, and he demanded the recovery of damages for his personal injuries sustained in the accident, which included past, present, and future mental anguish; pain and suffering as a result of his injuries; medical bills resulting from his injuries; and lost wages. The complaint also requested damages for bystander liability. Charles's complaint did not demand any damages on behalf of or for Oner's wrongful-death beneficiaries.

         ¶6. After the parties agreed to consolidate the two cases, the circuit court then referred the case to mediation. A successful mediation was held on April 15, 2015. The parties reached a settlement agreement. However, the next day, Charles's attorneys informed Rochelle's attorney that Charles intended to pursue distribution of the wrongful-death settlement proceeds to the beneficiaries under the law of South Carolina. Under South Carolina law, Charles would be entitled to receive fifty percent of the settlement funds, and Oner's children would share the remaining fifty percent. S.C. Code Ann. §§ 62-2-102 (2014). Under Mississippi law, Charles and Oner's children would receive equal shares. Miss. Code Ann. § 11-7-13 (Rev. 2004).

         ¶7. On April 20, 2015, Rochelle filed a motion to approve the settlement and distribute the settlement proceeds to the wrongful-death beneficiaries. In this motion, Rochelle asserted that Mississippi law governed the distribution. Charles responded with a motion for a declaratory judgment, claiming that South Carolina law governed the distribution. Rochelle points out that this was the first pleading in which Charles claimed that there was a choice-of-law issue before the circuit court.

         ¶8. On April 30, 2015, the circuit judge issued a twelve page, single spaced order that decided the pending motions. The circuit judge concluded:

Balancing all of the above elements, this court finds [that] Mississippi has the most significant relationship with the occurrence and with the parties. That South Carolina has any interest has not been "expressly shown" by any party. The parties waived this issue by not raising the same in a timely manner. Even if this had been timely raised, Mississippi [r]ules of intestate succession apply to personal property located in Mississippi. Even if the complaints were somehow construed as being [an] action for [or] on behalf of the Estate of Oner Shortie, Mississippi laws still apply to intestate succession of personal property for a nonresident decedent.

         ¶9. On June 1, 2015, the circuit judge executed a final declaratory judgment. It read:

Wherefore, the court hereby declares that the proper allocation of the wrongful[-]death proceeds of Oner K. Shortie, deceased, be distributed to the wrongful[-]death beneficiaries under section 11-7-13 of the Mississippi Code of 1972, Annotated as [a]mended, with each of the six (6) heirs receiving one-sixth (1/6) of the wrongful[-]death benefits.

         The circuit judge also added the following language in his own handwriting: "Pursuant to Rule 54(b) [of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure] the Court expressly determines that there is no just reason for delay in entering Final Judgment as to the parties[, ] and the Clerk is directed to enter this order as a Final Judgment." It is from this judgment that Charles now appeals.

         ISSUES PRESENTED

         ¶10. Charles identified the following issues on appeal:

I. The trial court erred as a matter of law when it failed to apply a proper choice-of-law analysis when it determined Mississippi law and not South Carolina law applied to the distribution of wrongful[-]death proceeds.
II. The trial court erred as a matter of law when it determined Charles Shortie "waived" his right to raise the conflicts[-]of[-]law issue.
III. The trial court erred as a matter of law when it allowed a party to add documents to the record in violation of Rule 10(f) [of the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure].

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶11. All of the issues raised in this appeal are purely questions of law. This appeal raises no questions of fact. We review a trial court's conclusions of law de novo. In re Estate of England, 846 So.2d 1060, 1064 (¶12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). ANALYSIS

         ¶12. The review of every wrongful-death claim in Mississippi begins with section 11-7-13 and Long v. McKinney, 897 So.2d 160 (Miss. 2004). Section 11-7-13 is the statutory authority for a wrongful-death claim, and it defines the beneficiaries who are entitled to recover damages. In Long, the supreme court provided an in-depth, comprehensive review of and guidance for wrongful-death litigation in Mississippi. The court recognized that there were "many troubling issues related to wrongful-death litigation. The same issues and problems continually appear, and have been addressed on an ad hoc basis, leaving little in the way of dependable precedent." Long, 897 So.2d at 163 (¶3). The supreme court noted: "Today, we are provided an opportunity to address and clarify several of these problems, and to provide guidance for these issues to the bar and judiciary." Id. at (¶4). The court then concluded:

However, for several reasons, we must reject the proposition that the first heir to reach the courthouse with a lawyer will "control the litigation" to the exclusion of participation by other heirs who wish to join with other counsel of their choosing.
Perhaps the most glaring fallacy in such a policy is the potential for conflicts of interest which - should a view contrary to our view today prevail - would be both legislatively ordered and court sanctioned.
We are persuaded that, absent the [wrongful-death s]tatute, wrongful[-]death litigation would be reasonably uncomplicated. The rules to be followed are not substantially different from those which apply to any personal-injury suit where multiple plaintiffs pursue a claim against one or more defendants. Such matters as joinder, "[c]ontrol of the litigation, " and participation by counsel, are left to the sound discretion of the trial judge. We observe few problems with such cases, and we are confident that today's decision will bring wrongful[-]death litigation to its rightful place under the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.

Id. at 178 (¶¶76-78).

         ¶13. Here, as in Long, we have an experienced and learned trial judge. Likewise, the lawyers for Oners' children and Charles are experienced in complex litigation and are excellent lawyers. Indeed, consistent with Long's guidance, they have worked together reasonably well to pursue this litigation and obtain a substantial settlement. We turn to the issues raised.

         I. The trial court erred as a matter of law when it failed to apply a proper choice-of-law analysis when it determined Mississippi law and not South Carolina law applied to the distribution of wrongful-death proceeds.

         ¶14. Charles argues that South Carolina law governs the distribution of the settlement proceeds. He claims the circuit judge made an incorrect choice-of-law decision. Rochelle disagrees and argues that the circuit judge was correct to apply Mississippi law. If not, Rochelle claims that Charles waived the issue.

         A. Circuit Court's Analysis

         ¶15. The relevant language in the April 30, 2015 order is the following ruling:

Balancing all of the above elements, this court finds [that] Mississippi has the most significant relationship with the occurrence and with the parties. That South Carolina has any interest has not been "expressly shown" by any party. The parties waived this issue by not raising the same in a timely manner. Even if this had been timely raised, Mississippi [r]ules of intestate succession apply to personal property located in Mississippi. Even if the complaints were somehow construed as being an action for [or] on behalf of the Estate of Oner Shortie, Mississippi laws still apply to intestate succession of personal property for a nonresident decedent.

         The circuit court made three rulings. First, the court made a decision on the choice-of-law issue and ruled that Mississippi law applies to the distribution of the wrongful-death settlement proceeds. Second, Charles waived the issue because he did not raise it in a timely manner. Third, the Mississippi ...


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