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Trotter v. Harris

United States District Court, D. Kansas

March 21, 2018

JULIAN T. HARRIS, et al., Defendants.


          Daniel D. Crabtree United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Robert Trotter, Jr., for himself and all of Adrian Trotter's heirs, files this case against defendants Julian T. Harris, Titus Transportation, LP, and Fast Lane Express Carriers, LLC. Plaintiff asserts one claim against all defendants: wrongful death under the Kansas Wrongful Death Act (Kan. Stat. Ann. §§ 60-1901, et seq.). Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Harris wrongfully caused Adrian's death when he negligently drove his semi-truck and hit Adrian on I-335.

         The court set this case for trial on January 31, 2018. After conducting a limine conference that morning, the parties informed the court that they had reached a settlement. The parties have asked the court to conduct a settlement apportionment hearing as the Kansas Wrongful Death Act requires. At the hearing, the court orally granted the apportionment the parties proposed. This Memorandum and Order memorializes and explains further the court's findings and rationale.

         I. Findings of Fact

         At the time of his death, Adrian had two heirs: his mother, Karen Hidalgo, and his father, plaintiff. Adrian never married and he has no children.

         Plaintiff retained Pantaleon Florez, Jr. of Pantaleon Florez, Jr. Law Office to represent him in this wrongful death suit. Plaintiff agreed to pay Mr. Florez 40% of any net recovery he realized, after expenses. Ex. 1 at 2. Ms. Hidalgo also has retained Mr. Florez and agreed to pay a similar fee.

         As noted above, the parties reached a settlement the morning of the first day of trial. When the parties announced the settlement on January 31, 2018, the parties informed the court that they wished to seal the gross amount of the settlement. At the March 1, 2018 hearing, the court reviewed a copy of the parties' settlement agreement. The court intentionally has omitted reference to the gross settlement amounts in this order because it recognizes the role and value that confidential settlement negotiations can play in the efficient and fair resolution of disputes. See Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978) (explaining that while the public has a “general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, ” the right is not absolute). Here, the court finds that the interest served by preserving the gross amount of the confidential settlement outweighs the public interest in access to that figure. The court briefly explains the basis for this finding in the following paragraphs.

         First, neither the public nor members of the media have demonstrated any interest in the proceedings. When the court called the case for trial, only the parties and their counsel appeared. The same was true for the settlement hearing on March 1. And while the public has some level of interest in all proceedings conducted in a forum funded by taxpayers, the Nixon standard directs the court to weigh that interest against factors favoring a different outcome. See Id. at 602 (weighing the public's interest in the Nixon tapes and the public's right to access judicial records against President Nixon's right to privacy and his “property interest in the sound of his own voice”).

         Here, the public and press have manifested an apathy for the details of this particular case. The court thus evaluates the public's interest in access to the gross amount as slight. This takes the analysis to the second factor: the interests, if any, that favor sealing the settlement's gross value. The parties have explained that confidentiality of this settlement's gross settlement amount played a meaningful role in their negotiations and agreement. The factors favoring mutually agreeable compromise of litigated disputes are well known. Lowery v. Cty. of Riley, 738 F.Supp.2d 1159, 1168 (D. Kan. 2010) (“The law favors agreements to compromise and settle disputes . . . .”). The court will not repeat them here. It suffices to say that a conclusion reached by compromise saves members of the public from having to take time away from work to serve as jurors for trial. It also saves judicial resources. Given these factors and the importance that confidentiality played in this dispute's resolution, the court evaluates this factor as a significant one.

         Finally, the court recalls the reason for conducting a settlement hearing in the first place. The Kansas Wrongful Death Act requires such a hearing to ensure that: (a) the amount recovered in such a case is fairly apportioned among the decedent's heirs; and (b) the fee paid to counsel in such cases is a reasonable one. See Turman v. Ameritruck Refrigerated Transp., Inc., 125 F.Supp.2d 444, 447-455 (D. Kan. 2000) (discussing whether a settlement agreement in a Kansas Wrongful Death Act case fairly apportioned the proceeds to the heirs and whether the fee charged by the lawyers was reasonable). The court can discharge these functions without publishing the settlement's gross amount in its order.

         Last, this ruling is a provisional one. By this order, the court has advised members of the public and the media of its reasoning and conclusions. If anyone contends that the court has overlooked important contrary factors or misapplied the Nixon analysis, they may file a motion seeking to unseal the gross amount. In sum, the court finds that the Nixon factors favoring sealing the settlement's gross amount outweigh those that favor public access to that figure.

         Turning to the parties' request, they ask the court to disperse the settlement as follows: (1) $3, 072.91 to Mr. Florez for expenses incurred; (2) 40% of the gross settlement amount minus costs to Mr. Florez for his attorney's fee; and (3) the remaining amount split evenly between plaintiff and Ms. Hidalgo-the decedent's only heirs.

         II. Legal Standard

         As a court presiding over a case in federal court on diversity jurisdiction, the court “appl[ies] the substantive law of the forum state, Kansas.” Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Servs., Inc. v. Twin City Fire Ins. Co., 636 F.3d 1300, 1302 (10th Cir. 2011). As explained above, plaintiff brings this action under the Kansas Wrongful Death Act. The Kansas Wrongful Death Act requires the court to apportion the recovery in a Kansas Wrongful Death Act case after conducting a hearing. Kan. Stat. Ann. § 60-1905. The Act provides that the court, first, should allow costs and reasonable attorney's fees for plaintiff's counsel. Id. The Act then directs the court to apportion the recovery among the heirs in proportion to the loss sustained by each one. Id.; see also Flowers v. Marshall, 494 ...

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