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Holmes v. Krug

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 15, 2017

KRISTINE HOLMES, individually as surviving mother and heir at law of ELIJAH HOLMES, deceased, Plaintiff,
KELLER KRUG, Defendants.



         In December 2014, Elijah Holmes was killed in an automobile accident. He was 18 years old. Elijah's mother, Plaintiff Kristine Holmes, seeks to recover against the driver of that automobile-Defendant Keller Krug-for the wrongful death of her son. Before the Court is Krug's motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 14). Krug seeks judgment limiting Kristine's potential recovery of pecuniary damages to medical and funeral expenses only. Because the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to Kristine supports an award of pecuniary damages, the Court denies Krug's motion.[1]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

         Kristine Holmes had two sons. Brad was the oldest, and Elijah was a year younger. When Brad and Elijah were in middle school, Kristine and their father divorced. From that point on, just Kristine, Brad, and Elijah lived at their home in Natoma, Kansas.

         During high school, the boys helped Kristine cook, clean the house, and take care of the animals, although Brad and Kristine both noted that despite his attempts to help, Elijah was not much of a cook and sometimes would break dishes. When Elijah was living with his mom, he would vacuum three or four times a week and did the dishes every day. But Kristine's dad- Elijah's grandfather-did most of the outdoor maintenance, such as mowing the yard. Elijah would also help his grandparents if they needed something moved or rearranged around their house.

         When he was a freshman in high school, Elijah began suffering seizures, and so he never got his driver's license. Nonetheless, he would run errands to the local post office or quick shop for his mom. Elijah worked at a grain elevator during two summers in high school, working as few as 10 hours some weeks to as many as 40 hours a week during harvest.

         Upon graduating from high school in 2014, Elijah received a scholarship to play football at Bethel College. But despite the partial scholarship, Bethel's tuition proved too expensive for Kristine. So in the fall of 2014, Elijah moved back in with Kristine for three days. Elijah then moved to Hays, where he lived with his cousin.

         While he was living in Hays, Elijah would make the 45 minute trip home to Natoma almost every weekend. Because Elijah did not have a driver's license, Kristine usually picked him up on Friday and dropped him back off in Hays on Sunday. About once a week, Kristine and Elijah would go out to eat or see a movie together. Brad considered his little brother a “mama's boy, ” and noted that Elijah and Kristine were always there for each other. Specifically, Elijah was very supportive of Kristine when she went through her divorce and when her brother passed away.

         Elijah planned on attending Fort Hays State University at the beginning of the spring semester in 2015. Elijah wanted to study communications-he hoped for a career involving music, sound, and computers. According to Brad, his dream job would have been a stage technician, and he would have moved to somewhere like Los Angeles if he had the chance. Until the spring semester began, Elijah worked full time for Cross Manufacturing in Hays. But Brad, who worked in the oil field, was trying to help Elijah get a job with him. Elijah used his paychecks to pay his bills. Kristine noted that Elijah was learning how to budget, although she admitted that like many teenagers, he tended to go through his money as fast as he made it. Kristine also helped her son out by buying him groceries and giving him some cash from time to time. Elijah did not have a credit card or debt of any kind.

         On December 26, 2014, Elijah was a passenger in a vehicle driven by Keller Krug. The vehicle collided with a tractor trailer and Elijah was killed. He was 18 years old. Kristine claims that she never would have asked her sons to financially support her, but she had expected Elijah to be with her, in some way, for the rest of her life. She believes that Elijah would have been there for her as she got older because “Elijah was a kind soul” and “would have been there to help his mom.” Elijah had told Kristine that he would always be there for her and that he loved her.

         Kristine, as Elijah's heir, brings this wrongful death action against Krug. She is seeking both pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. Krug now moves for partial summary judgment, asking the Court to limit Kristine's potential pecuniary damages to medical and funeral expenses only.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[3]A fact is “material” when it is essential to the claim, and issues of fact are “genuine” if the proffered evidenced permits a reasonable jury to decide the issue in either party's favor.[4] The moving party bears the initial burden of proof, and must show the lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim.[5] If the moving party carries this initial burden, the non-moving party that bears the burden of persuasion at trial may not simply rest on its pleading but must instead “set forth specific facts” from which a rational trier of fact could find for the non-moving party.[6] These facts must be clearly identified through affidavits, deposition transcripts, or incorporated exhibits-conclusory allegations alone cannot survive a motion for summary judgment.[7] To survive summary judgment, the non-moving party's evidence must be admissible.[8] The Court views all evidence and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment.[9]

         III. Analysis

         The substantive law of Kansas, the forum state in this diversity action, governs the Court's analysis.[10] In wrongful death cases, Kansas law recognizes two categories of damages: pecuniary and non-pecuniary.[11] “Nonpecuniary damages generally are intangible in nature” and include “mental anguish, bereavement, loss of society and loss of companionship.”[12] A plaintiff can recover no more than $250, 000 for non-pecuniary losses in a wrongful death case.[13] On the other hand, there is no limit to the amount of recovery for pecuniary damages.[14] Pecuniary losses are tangible, economic losses.[15] They obviously include medical and funeral expenses that arose from the alleged tort.[16] Those damages are not contested here. Instead Krug contends that medical and funeral expenses represent the extent of Kristine's pecuniary damages. In other words, Krug argues that there is no evidence that Kristine has suffered any pecuniary losses in addition to medical and funeral expenses.

         In Wentling v. Medical Anesthesia Services, P.A., [17] the Kansas Supreme Court referred to this other type of pecuniary damages as “loss of services, care and guidance.”[18] These are those “benefits or compensation that reasonably could have been expected to have resulted from the continued life of the deceased.”[19] When a parent seeks to recover for the death of a child, Kansas courts have described these pecuniary damages as the benefits which the parent may have reasonably expected to receive from the child had he lived.[20] These damages include loss of filial care, attention or protection, and loss of earnings that the child would have contributed to the parent during the remainder of his lifetime.[21]

         The court in Wentling noted that it is difficult to assign a monetary value to these pecuniary losses. And yet, the court noted that there could be no serious contention that the lack of care, guidance, and services lacked monetary value.[22] Thus, the Court declared that “[t]he mere fact these items of loss, having acknowledged economic value, are incapable of exact economic valuation does not mean plaintiff should be denied recovery.”[23] Instead, under Kansas law, a plaintiff satisfies his burden of proof with regard to these damages by establishing the nature and extent of the losses asserted.[24] “Once such evidence is presented, the jurors are presumed to be capable of converting the losses into monetary equivalents based on their own knowledge and experience.”[25]

         In other words, Kristine is not required to identify specific examples of filial care, attention or protection, and loss of earnings that Elijah would have provided to meet her burden with regard to pecuniary damages. Rather, she must show the nature and extent of the losses she has incurred; from there, the jury must determine whether she suffered pecuniary losses, as defined under Kansas law.[26] Based on Kristine's losses, the jury must determine whether she could have reasonably expected to receive benefits from Elijah had he lived, and if so, assign them value.[27] Thus, as long as Kristine has presented evidence from which a jury could determine that she could have reasonably expected to receive benefits from Elijah had he lived, Krug is not entitled to summary judgment.

         Krug argues that Kristine's pecuniary damages should be limited to medical and funeral expenses for the following reasons: (1) Elijah provided no financial support or services that would give rise to such damages; (2) Elijah did not provide advice, protection, training, or guidance to Kristine; and (3) Elijah lived away from home, and wanted a career away from home, and thus would not have provided support in the future. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

         A. Kristine has presented evidence supporting pecuniary losses in the form of financial support or services.

         Krug claims that there is zero evidence supporting an award of damages on the theory that Elijah would have contributed to his mom financially or provided any services of monetary value. In support of this contention, Krug points to the following snippets of evidence: Brad testified that Elijah never told him that would financially support Kristine in the future;[28] Kristine testified that she would have never asked her sons to support her; and Kristine gave cash to Elijah, who, according to Krug, “was a spender and went through money as fast as he earned it.” Additionally, Krug avers that Elijah did not contribute to household chores, and Kristine did not expect him to. As Krug puts it, “Elijah did not do the dishes, laundry, or cook, because according to his brother Brad, he did not know how.” Furthermore, Krug asserts that when he did do the dishes or laundry, “Elijah broke the dishes and ruined the laundry.” Essentially, Krug's argument is that Elijah took more than he gave, and therefore, Kristine is not entitled to any damages for pecuniary losses because based on the evidence, Kristine could not have reasonably expected to receive any benefits from Elijah had he lived. As Krug-emphasis his- argues:

Elijah was no child. He was an adult. By age eighteen, Elijah could have demonstrated a degree of responsibility indicative of the probability that he would provide valuable services to his mother later in life. But, Elijah did not demonstrate such behavior.

         This characterization of Elijah is unsupported by the evidence, and Krug's argument is unsupported by Kansas law.

         At the outset, Krug's argument mischaracterizes the evidence. The evidence does not present Elijah as the financially irresponsible, unhelpful son that Krug describes. The record shows that Elijah did the dishes and vacuumed for his mom every day when they lived together-while Elijah was still in high school. He worked during the summers in high school and held a job in Hays while he waited to start college classes. Although he was more of a spender than a saver, at 18 years old he paid his own bills and had no debt. The evidence shows that Elijah was about as financially responsible and helpful as the average teenager, if not more so.

         Furthermore, Krug's argument runs counter to Kansas law. The key takeaway from Kansas cases on the issue of pecuniary losses is that the jury is tasked with assigning value to future benefits that obviously have value, but for which a number is difficult to ascertain.[29] And admittedly, that number is even more difficult to identify when the plaintiff is a parent and the decedent is 18 years old without a defined career or specific lifetime plans. But in Kansas, “parents have long been able to recover economic damages for the death of a majority-age child.”[30]

         In any event, the jury must first determine whether there would have been any economic benefits had Elijah survived, and second, must assign value to those benefits. This is no easy task, and the jury must rely on their knowledge in experience is accomplishing it.[31] And the law is clear, for Kristine to meet her burden-that is, in order for the jury to make such a determination-she must establish the nature and extent of the losses she has suffered.[32] She has done so.

         Yes, Elijah was 18. But Kristine still contends that she lost her baby, and any mother would agree. Kristine called Elijah a kind soul who was always there for her. She claims that she fully expected him to care for her as she got older, and the evidence suggests that Elijah and Kristine were extremely close. Even after graduating high school and relocating to Hays, Elijah spent a great deal of time with his mother, going on weekly outings with her and traveling home to spend weekends with her. A reasonable jury-one composed of mothers of 18 year olds, and former 18 year old sons of such mothers-would probably find Elijah's affection for his mom to be greater than normal. And such a jury would almost certainly determine that ...

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