Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 00-L-72 Honorable Barbara C. Gilleran-Johnson, Judge, Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Byrne
John E. Young, Jr., the father of decedent, Brejonna Moniq Young, appeals from an order of the circuit court of Lake County that awarded him $8,000 as his share of a settlement obtained in a wrongful death action brought by Brandy Johnson, the mother of decedent and the special administrator of her estate. We reverse and remand with directions.
On April 9, 1999, Brejonna died as the result of the negligence of Betty J. Christiansen, an operator of an automobile that caused an accident resulting in the initial injury to Brandy and Brejonna, and the subsequent negligence of the health care providers at Provena St. Therese Medical Center (Provena), which resulted in Brejonna's stillbirth. Brejonna was then an approximately eight-month-old viable fetus, having been conceived by Brandy and John, who had never married.
Brandy was appointed special administrator for the purpose of prosecuting an action against defendants for the death of Brejonna. Thereafter, Brandy filed a complaint against defendants alleging that defendants' improper care resulted in the stillborn delivery of Brejonna. Brandy alleged that Brejonna left surviving heirs and next of kin.
Although Christiansen was not involved in the underlying suit against defendants, Brandy filed a motion to approve a partial settlement of $100,000 with Christiansen. The trial court approved the partial settlement. After the payment of attorney fees and costs, $59,000 was available for distribution.
Subsequently, a mediation was conducted with the named defendants. Brandy and defendants entered into a settlement agreement in the amount of $630,000. Thereafter, Brandy filed a motion to approve the settlement, pay attorney fees, and determine dependency for the purposes of a distribution. The motion provides that, at the time of Brejonna's death, she left surviving her mother, Brandy; her sister, Janea Eternal Young; and her father, John. The motion requests that Janea, born July 17, 1996, receive a portion of the net settlement of the estate as a structured settlement in the form of a $50,000 annuity. A second motion to approve the settlement requested that the net proceeds of approximately $395,000 be apportioned between the parents because Janea had already received her portion. The trial court approved the settlement and authorized the payment of attorney fees, costs, and expenses. The court also ordered that the remaining sum of $395,354 be deposited into an interest-bearing account until dependency and entitlement were determined. It is this amount, plus the $59,000 from the partial settlement, that the trial court was asked to apportion among the surviving next of kin.
At the evidentiary hearing, the trial court heard argument concerning the manner in which the settlement should be distributed. Brandy argued that, under the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/1 et seq. (West 2000)), a settlement should be distributed among the heirs of the decedent pursuant to the laws of descent and distribution. Because the decedent was illegitimate, Brandy contended that, pursuant to section 2--2 of the Probate Act of 1975 (Probate Act)(755 ILCS 5/2--2 (West 2000)), only an eligible parent of an illegitimate can inherit. To prove eligibility under section 2--2, Brandy argued, John must present evidence that during decedent's lifetime he acknowledged the decedent as his child, established a parental relationship with the decedent, and supported the decedent as the child's parent. 755 ILCS 5/2--2 (West 2000). Although Brejonna was stillborn, Brandy believed that John's eligibility could be determined by looking to the role he played in Janea's life.
John disagreed. He argued that comparing the role he played in Janea's life to the role he would have played in Brejonna's life would be pure speculation and would place an undue burden on him to prove eligibility. John argued that the law presumes a parent sustains substantial pecuniary loss for the loss of the child's society when a decedent leaves a surviving parent. Because neither Brandy nor John had the opportunity to know Brejonna, John argued that their loss was equal and, therefore, the distribution should be shared equally. Over John's objections, however, the court believed that the eligibility criteria needed to be equally established by both sides.
Brandy presented evidence of John's relationship, or lack thereof, with his daughter Janea. Brandy also introduced evidence of John's criminal background, including evidence that he had been incarcerated at the time of Brejonna's death and previously had been convicted. Brandy also presented evidence showing that John did not financially support Janea or financially assist her while she was pregnant with Brejonna.
Testimony further revealed that on April 31, 2000, 15 months after Brejonna's death, Brandy gave birth to Qyshaan Johnson, who is Brejonna's half-brother. Additionally, a photograph was introduced depicting John with his daughter Janea and son Roderick, who, according to John's testimony, is his son by another woman.
Following the hearing of the respective claimants' entitlement to the proceeds, the trial court stated:
"And to be succinct, I simply think that we can resolve this case by answering the threshold question of whether or not Mr. Young is an eligible parent, as that term is defined in the statute, in the negative, it doesn't satisfy -- well, it satisfied one of three factors, which is that he did acknowledge paternity, which he did at a time after he discovered there was some profit to be made thereby. And so, I don't think we need even reach the issue of what degree of dependency Mr. Young had on Brejonna, because the statute that defines an eligible parent was adopted by the legislature in reaction to the court's decision in the Hicks case. While I believe the court said that you can't have a blanket rule that fathers of illegitimates can't recover, you can have a rule that says they have to prove that they're a father in more than simply the genetic sense before they can be in the line of descendant distribution.
And the cases we cited from the United States Supreme Court I think accurately set forth public policy that the government has in seeing that the fathers of illegitimate children remain part of their lives, both emotionally and financially. And I think the evidence shows in this case that Mr. Young clearly didn't do that, which he had the onus of. And I believe there's absolutely nothing in the record before us [to] indicate that Brejonna, had she survived, he would have treated her any different than he has Janea.
I believe that he has suffered little, if no loss, and has no reasonable expectation of any pecuniary benefits due to this child's death, be it stillborn, or trying to show that the five year [old] has his relationship. I think that the evidence has shown to the contrary that, in fact, his relationship would be limited with this particular child. I believe the mother would have provided for that child."
The trial court then issued the following written order, in relevant part:
"3. There remains a net amount of [$455,354.78] plus accrued interest remaining in the Estate of Brejonna Moniq Young, deceased, for distribution to the next of kin pursuant to [section 2 of the Wrongful Death Act].
4. That due to the stillbirth of the decedent Brejonna Moniq Young, the Court can make no determination of eligibility pursuant to [section 2--2 of the Probate Act] and therefore finds both Brandy Johnson and John E. Young, Jr. to be next of kin of Brejonna Moniq Young as that term is contemplated by [section 2 of the Wrongful Death Act];
5. That Qyshaan Johnson, whose birth to Brandy Johnson post-dated the death of the decedent, is a next of kin of Brejonna Moniq Young pursuant to the ...