Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Corder v. Corder (Cal. Ct. App. - Sept. 26, 2005)

I usually have a sense about which side is right. Maybe I'm wrong, of course, but I usually at least have an opinion.

Then there are cases like this one. About which I'm conflicted. As to which both sides make some darn good points. And with respect to which I'm forced to say: "Jeeze, I just don't know." Which in turn makes me ponder whether I'm missing something, whether other informed people would feel the same way, or whether it's simply just a darn tough issue. Which obviously happens. And this may be one of those cases in which the proper resolution of the dispute is just very much unclear.

Now, I hesitate to say that, because it might encourage you to actually read the opinion. Because it's a long one. 62 pages. Yikes. That's more than just a little bit of work in order to satisfy one's intellectual curiosity.

But, hey, we're all superstars here, right? We're all legal studs. We can read, comprehend, digest, analyze, and deeply critique 62 pages of prosaic text in, what, five minutes, right? So let's do it! (Okay, maybe not.)

Let me at least pique your interest. Because the basic facts are both brief and somewhat interesting. Sherry Corder meets Raymond Corder in August 1999, he proposes to her four months later, and they marry. Then, as luck would have it, eight months after they get married, Raymond gets whacked in a construction accident. Now, you notice I say "as luck would have it" but don't say whether it's good luck or bad. Because whether it's good or bad depends very much on both your interpretation of the facts as well as whose luck we're talking about. Sure, it's bad luck for Raymond. He's dead. That's rarely, if ever, an undiluted good. But what about the other folks?

Here's the thing about Sherry. Sure, she just lost her husband. Of eight months. But, according to a ton of the evidence, she's about to "lose" him anyway. Because -- and here's the interesting (or at least salacious) part -- she just can't seem to stop hooking. Apparently Raymond thought that marriage would "change" her whoring ways. But it ain't happening. And Raymond isn't happy about it. So Splitsville may be about to gain another resident. He hasn't seen a lawyer yet, but he tells lots of friends that it ain't looking good. That her cheating ways -- although bringing home the bacon (!) -- just ain't what he had in mind when he married his prostitute wife. Ah, the trials and tribulations of middle America.

Recall, though, that Raymond conveniently gets out of this difficult dilemma regarding what to do about his whoring wife by winding up dead. And winding up dead not just in some meaningless way (heart attack, etc.), but rather in a way ("construction accident") that gives rise to a lawsuit. So Sherry -- his surviving spouse -- and Lisa, who's Raymond's surviving adult daughter, sue. And end up with a settlement of $1.1 million. And promptly then fight about the appropriate split. Who should get what share?

Here are the basic arguments, distilled down to their basics (from 62 complicated pages of analysis). Lisa says that she should get the lion's share because Raymond was about to divorce Sherry, and hence Sherry's "loss of support" from Raymond was virtually nothing; e.g., the alimony she'd get for a grand total of eight months of marrige (say, $25,000). But Sherry says that Lisa should get almost nothing because she's an adult daughter who's essentially on her own, and the "loss of support" that one typically gets from the loss of a father by such a person is basically nothing (say, $25,000 as well).

The thing is, in my mind, they're both somewhat right. They both probably should get very little at trial. But they didn't get very little; rather, there's this $1.1 million settlement that needs to be split up. So who should get it? That's a toughie. Plus, there are various potentially dispositive legal arguments as well. Justice Sills argues that the fact that Raymond and Sherry might have been "about" to get divorced should be irrelevant, both because they weren't in fact divorced and because to allow such evidence -- particularly evidence about the reasons why they were allegedly going to get divorced -- would turn "no fault divorce" in California on its head. Plus, Sherry argues that the $1.1 million settlement was a figured almost assuredly reached because the defendant thought that she would receive roughly that amount at trial as "lost support", and even if defendant was wrong (because it didn't know about the potential divorce, inaccurately assessed the law, etc.), she should get most or all of that amount because she (not Lisa) "generated" it, or at least it was "allocated" to her in terms of the defendant's own assessment. But Lisa responds that this would just grant an illegitimate million-dollar windfall to the whoring, about-to-be-ditched-by-her-husband Sherry, and that these sums should actually be recovered by the person (Lisa) who actually both was loved by and lost the continuing companionship of her father, rather than the person (Sherry) who didn't really lose anything she wasn't already going to lose. But Sherry responds that giving Lisa this money would be a windfall to Lisa, since there's no freaking way that any jury would award a million dollars to an independent adult daughter like Lisa who lost her adult parent. And Sherry's got some pretty good evidence (typical Orange County jury verdicts, etc.) to prove it.

So who wins? What do you think? Now, mind you, I've summarized all this stuff very briefly, and think that the issue becomes even harder to resolve once you read the compelling -- and competing -- analysis of both the majority and dissent. The trial court awarded 90% of the $1.1 million to Lisa (the daughter) and 10% to Sherry (the wife). Is that the right call?

The Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Ikola, says "Yes". Whereas Justice Sills dissents and concludes "No". And, again, both articulate great arguments in support of their position. A toughie. Read the opinions (if you dare!) and see if you're as equally conflicted as I am. At the end of the day, I just don't know who's right and who's wrong.