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In re Estate of Bennett

Supreme Court of Montana

August 20, 2013

IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JEREMIAH BENNETT

OPINION AND ORDER

JIM RICE, J.

¶1 Abel Robert Bennett and Judy Bennett have petitioned this Court to exercise supervisory control over the Twentieth Judicial District Court, and determine the District Court is proceeding under a mistake of law by its April 18, 2013 order holding that Bennetts are not entitled to claim damages resulting from the wrongful death of their adult son, Jeremiah Bennett. We grant the petition.

BACKGROUND

¶2 The underlying action is a dispute regarding the administration of the estate of Jeremiah Bennett (Jeremiah). Jeremiah died as a result of injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident on September 8, 2012. Jeremiah is survived by two minor children he had with his former wife, Sabrina Bennett (Sabrina), and his parents, Abel Robert Bennett and Judy Bennett (Bennetts). Sabrina is the court-appointed guardian and conservator for the two minor children. Jeremiah's fiancée, Christina Jackson, was also killed in the accident, and his two minor children suffered serious injuries. Jeremiah died intestate.

¶3 The District Court informally appointed Abel Robert Bennett (Abel Robert) personal representative of the Estate of Jeremiah Bennett (Estate) on October 19, 2012. On November 14, 2012, Sabrina petitioned the District Court to remove Abel Robert and appoint her as personal representative. After hearing, the District Court granted Sabrina's requests. The District Court's granting of Sabrina's petition for formal probate and for removal of Abel Robert as personal representative was the subject of an interlocutory appeal. In re the Estate of Bennett, 2013 MT 228, ___ Mont.___, ___ P.3d___ .

¶4 On March 4, 2013, Sabrina petitioned the District Court for a declaration that the Bennetts had no standing to claim wrongful death damages as a result of Jeremiah's death. The same day, Bennetts filed a motion to intervene, arguing that their wrongful death claims were not being recognized or pursued by Sabrina in her role as personal representative. Bennetts conceded that they did not have a viable claim for loss of consortium under this Court's precedent, see Hern v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Ill., 2005 MT 301, ¶ 58, 329 Mont. 347, 125 P.3d 597, but maintained they could claim damages for grief, sorrow, and mental anguish that Sabrina, as personal representative of Jeremiah's estate, had a fiduciary duty to advance on their behalf. After a hearing, the District Court entered its Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order on April 18, 2013 (Order), holding that "the minor children of the decedent are the sole heirs of the estate under the laws of intestate succession and therefore have priority over any wrongful death and survivorship claims." The Order continued:

. . . [T]he Court does not accept Abel Robert and Judy's argument that because the parents in Hern recovered grief, sorrow and mental anguish, through the personal representative, that Abel Robert and Judy may also personally recover those damages. Becky Hern's parents were her "heirs." In this case, Jeremiah's [minor children] are his only heirs under the Montana laws in intestate succession and therefore have the exclusive right to recover wrongful death damages for grief, sorrow and mental anguish.
That because Abel Robert and Judy are neither intestate heirs nor statutory heirs . . . any claims to wrongful death damages for grief, sorrow and mental anguish are subordinate to those of decedent's minor children. They lack standing to participate, object or intervene in any estate proceedings or wrongful death claims arising out of Jeremiah's death.

The Order granted Sabrina's petition for declaratory relief, and denied Bennetts' motion to intervene, concluding "[Bennetts] are not entitled to wrongful death benefits arising out of Jeremiah's death as they concede they lack the relationship requirement for loss of consortium and they are not entitled to grief, sorrow, and mental anguish benefits."

¶5 Bennetts petitioned this Court for supervisory control, and we ordered that a response be filed by Sabrina and, if it desired, the District Court. Sabrina has filed a response. On Bennetts' motion, we imposed a stay preventing Sabrina from releasing any of Bennetts' claims and from entering agreements for allocation of insurance proceeds, until the matters pending before this Court were resolved.

¶6 The subject of this petition is whether the District Court erred as a matter of law by concluding the Bennetts are not entitled to claim wrongful death damages for grief, sorrow, and mental anguish under § 27-1-513, MCA, for the death of Jeremiah, their adult child.

DISCUSSION

¶7 This Court "has general supervisory control over all other courts." Mont. Const. art. VII, § 2(2). "Supervisory control is an extraordinary remedy, reserved for extraordinary circumstances." Stokes v. Mont. Thirteenth Jud. Dist. Ct., 2011 MT 182, ¶ 5, 361 Mont. 279, 259 P.3d 754 (citing Hegwood v. Mont. Fourth Jud. Dist. Ct., 2003 MT 200, ¶ 6, 317 Mont. 30, 75 P.3d 308). Acceptance of supervisory control is decided on a case-by-case basis and is "limited to cases involving purely legal questions, in which the district court is proceeding under a mistake of law causing a gross injustice or constitutional issues of statewide importance are involved." Stokes, ¶ 5 (citing M. R. App. P. 14(3)). We may assume supervisory control to direct the course of litigation if the district court "is proceeding based on a mistake of law, which if uncorrected, would cause significant injustice for which appeal is an inadequate remedy." Stokes, ¶ 5 (citing Simms v. Mont. Eighteenth Jud. Dist. Ct., 2003 MT 89, ¶ 18, 315 Mont. 135, 68 P.3d 678).

¶8 We conclude that the circumstances warrant exercise of supervisory control. Bennetts may not initiate an interlocutory appeal from the denial of their motion to intervene. M. R. App. P. 6; Continental Ins. Co. v. Bottomly, 233 Mont. 277, 279, 760 P.2d 73, 75 (1988) (citing former M. R. App. P. 1). An appeal from a final judgment could potentially invalidate a complex settlement now being negotiated among multiple claimants and insurers, a process from which Bennetts have been excluded. Bennetts present a purely legal question: whether the District Court erred by concluding the Bennetts may not receive wrongful death damages for grief, sorrow, and mental anguish as a matter of ...


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