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In re Soran

Supreme Court of Wyoming

February 25, 2014

IN THE MATTER OF THE WRONGFUL DEATH OF DANIEL P. SORAN, II, DAN SORAN, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE: DAN SORAN, LYNETTE SORAN and SARAH SORAN, Appellants (Plaintiffs),
v.
LAURA SORAN, Appellee (Plaintiff)

Page 110

Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County. The Honorable Thomas T.C. Campbell, Judge.

For Appellants: Thomas B. Jubin of Jubin & Zerga, LLC, Cheyenne, WY; Michael L. Weiner of Yaeger, Jungbauer & Barczak, PLC, Saint Paul, MN. Argument by Mr. Jubin.

For Appellee: Scott W. Meier, Lucas Buckley, and Traci L. Lacock of Hathaway & Kunz, P.C., Cheyenne, WY. Argument by Mr. Meier.

Before KITE, C.J., and HILL, VOIGT[*] BURKE, and DAVIS, JJ.

OPINION

Page 111

HILL, Justice.

[¶1] This case involves a wrongful death claim brought on behalf of the beneficiaries of Daniel P. Soran, II (Decedent). Decedent's father, in his capacity as personal representative, settled the wrongful death claim with the applicable liability insurance companies for $400,000. Thereafter, a dispute arose between the beneficiaries as to how the settlement proceeds should be distributed, with Decedent's allegedly estranged wife, Laura Soran, on one side, and Decedent's parents and sister on the other side. Following a bench trial on distribution of the damages, the district court awarded Laura Soran 75% of the settlement proceeds and divided the remainder of the proceeds among Decedent's parents and sister. Decedent's parents and sister appeal, contending that the court erred in imposing on them the burden to disprove Laura Soran's damages and that the court's distribution was clearly erroneous in light of the evidence. We reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with the direction herein.

ISSUES

[¶2] Decedent's parents and sister, Appellants, present the issues for our review as follows:

1. The trial court erred as a matter of law, in imposing the burden upon other beneficiaries to disprove the estranged wife's claim to wrongful death damages.
2. When distributing settlement proceeds to wrongful death beneficiaries, the trial court's decision to award 75% of these proceeds to the estranged wife was clearly erroneous where the evidence proved a clear and unquestionable mutual intent to end the marriage, and where the estranged wife failed to prove the loss of a future relationship with the decedent.

FACTS

[¶3] On February 19, 2011, Decedent died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Decedent was survived by his wife, Laura Soran, by his parents, Dan and Lynette Soran, and by his sister, Sarah Soran. Robert A. Curran was the driver of the vehicle in which Decedent was a passenger when he died, and Decedent's father, Dan Soran, in his capacity as wrongful death personal representative, settled with Curran's insurance providers for the sum of $400,000. A dispute arose between Decedent's beneficiaries as to how the settlement proceeds should be distributed. On October 18, 2011, Dan Soran, again in his personal representative capacity, filed a Rule 67 motion to deposit the settlement proceeds for holding by the clerk of court until such time as their proper distribution among Decedent's survivors could be determined.

[¶4] On February 4, 2013, a bench trial was held to determine distribution of the settlement proceeds. Decedent's parents and sister were represented on one side of the dispute, and they framed the dispute in their pretrial memorandum as follows:

The remaining dispute lays between, on the one hand, Daniel's estranged wife Laura Soran, and on the other, Daniel's immediate family, consisting of his father, mother, and sister (respectively Dan, Lynn and Sarah Soran). Daniel's parents and sister collectively dispute the portion claimed by

Page 112

Laura, based on evidence that the marriage between Daniel and Laura was irretrievably broken, and that Daniel had unquestionably planned to divorce Laura. In addition to presenting evidence showing the extremely close, loving and ongoing relationship between Daniel and his parents and sister, an additional focus at trial will be on the extensive evidence documenting Daniel's intent to end his marriage to Laura, refuting her damage claims.

[¶5] Decedent's wife, Laura Soran, was represented on the other side of the dispute, and she described the dispute as follows in her pretrial memorandum:

Laura Soran claims that she has significant damages resulting from the death of her husband, Daniel P. Soran, II. Laura Soran's damages include economic damages of loss of support as well as non-economic damages resulting from the loss of care[,] comfort and society of Decedent.
On information and belief, the other wrongful death beneficiaries claim that they have damages resulting from the death of Decedent and further claim that Laura Soran and Decedent's marriage would have ended in divorce and that, therefore, Laura Soran's damages in this matter are limited to the care, comfort, ...

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