Insurer’s settlement of wrongful death claim found invalid

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona has disagreed with the contention of a couple that their former car insurer’s $15,000 settlement in a wrongful death claim filed by a mother of a deceased son is invalid because it never received court approval.

Manglona said the CNMI statute does not offer any clarity as to whether court approval is a prerequisite to settlement that would affect the legality of negotiations between parties.

The court has not found any CNMI case law interpreting this provision, and couple Dong-Youl Kim and Hee Ko Moon offer none, either from this jurisdiction or other jurisdictions, said Manglona in denying the couple’s motion for partial summary judgment.

In the same order, the judge denied the request of the couple’s former car insurer, Pacific Indemnity Insurance Co., to sanction the couple for filing several motions for partial summary judgment.

She, however, barred Kim and Moon from filing any motions for partial or full summary judgment until after the close of discovery.

Manglona said all three of the couple’s motions for partial summary judgment could have been brought in a single motion, as no new facts or evidence was shown between the filing of each motion.

Despite this inefficiency, the court declines at this time to find this submission of piecemeal motions to be in bad faith, Manglona said.

On the merits of the couple’s claim, Manglona said that Kim and Moon offer no evidence, other than their lawyer Charles P. Reyes Jr.’s assertions of what orders he was able to find, to support the contention that court approval was not obtained.

Manglona said even if the Superior Court has not approved this settlement agreement, the District Court cannot say that it is invalid and unenforceable against Apolonia Joseph, as the adminstratrix and/or personal representative of her deceased son’s estate.

According to court records, Kim and Moon’s son was driving their car on Jan. 2, 2013, when it hit Jefferson Keju, who subsequently died. A second car reportedly then hit Keju.

Police and court records showed that Keju was running away after being chased and beat up by two men.

Keju’s mother, Apolonia Joseph, filed a claim with Pacific Indemnity Insurance Co. for wrongful death.

Joseph was subsequently appointed administratrix of her deceased son’s estate to, among other things, pursue the insurance claim with Pacific Indemnity Insurance Co.

Pacific Indemnity offered “the policy limits of $15,000” to settle the claim and provided a release of claims agreement.

On Feb. 27, 2014, in exchange for the $15,000 payment to “the estate of Keju,” Joseph signed the release of claims as the administratrix.

In the release of claims, Joseph agreed to release couple Kim and Moon, their son, and Pacific Indemnity.

Pacific Indemnity provided a copy of the release to plaintiffs’ attorney, who acknowledged receipt and responded that he would “pass it on to the clients.”

The $15,000 was paid to the law office of Joseph’s counsel and deposited in the client trust account. The next day, Feb. 28, 2014, the amount was paid to Joseph, minus funds owed her attorney.

In December 2014, an action for wrongful death was filed by a representative of Keju against the couple.

In March 2016, the couple agreed to a stipulated judgment against them in the amount of $300,000 in exchange for a covenant not to sue.

In August 2017, Kim and Moon filed the lawsuit against Pacific Indemnity for allegedly not defending them in the wrongful death lawsuit that forced them to settle with Keju’s family for $300,000.

The issue in this matter is the couple’s third motion for partial judgment, which contends the $15,000 settlement of Joseph’s wrongful death claim is invalid because it never received court approval.

Pacific Indemnity, through counsel Robert T. Torres, responds that plaintiffs are estopped from challenging the validity of the settlement because they accepted the benefit of the settlement.

Pacific Indemnity argues that, if the settlement was initially invalid, the plaintiffs ratified it by accepting the benefits and that the only person who could challenge the settlement is Joseph.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a veteran journalist who has covered all news beats in the CNMI. Born in Lilo-an, Cebu City in the Philippines, De la Torre graduated from the University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a recipient of many commendations and awards, including the CNMI Judiciary’s prestigious Justice Award for his over 10 years of reporting on the judiciary’s proceedings and decisions. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@saipantribune.com

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