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Deon Ray Moody, A Minor, Etc., et al v. Gregory Bedford

January 9, 2012

DEON RAY MOODY, A MINOR, ETC., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
GREGORY BEDFORD, JR. ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles, William P. Barry, Judge. Reversed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. TC023251)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mosk, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs are the minor surviving children of the decedent mother and their guardian ad litem.*fn1 They filed a wrongful death action against defendants arising out of a head-on automobile collision that killed the mother. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants pursuant to the so-called one-action rule (Code Civ. Proc., § 377.60), concluding that an insurer's prelitigation, policy-limits settlement of a wrongful death insurance claim with one heir, who had represented that she was the only heir,*fn2 barred plaintiffs' subsequent wrongful death action.

We agree with plaintiffs that the one-action rule does not apply to the prelitigation settlement in issue and therefore does not bar plaintiffs' wrongful death claims against defendants. Accordingly, we reverse the order granting summary judgment and the judgment based on it.

BACKGROUND*fn3

Corinthia Hood (mother), the minor plaintiffs' mother, died in a head-on collision between the automobile in which she was a passenger and an automobile driven by defendant Gregory Bedford and owned by defendant Patricia Boyce.*fn4 Corisha Brown*fn5 is mother's adult daughter and the half-sister of the minor plaintiffs. Brown tendered a claim to Permanent General Assurance Corporation (Permanent General)--the company that insured defendants--arising out of the collision that killed mother. Attorney Gregory Yates represented Brown in connection with her claim against defendants. Gregory Hill of Permanent General handled Brown's claim from the time it was tendered until it was settled in May 2008.

Hill sent a letter to Yates advising that Permanent General was offering to settle Brown's claim for the full policy limits of $100,000. In the letter, Hill requested, inter alia, that Yates provide the identities of any and all of mother's heirs. Yates's office staff thereafter informed Hill that Brown had accepted Permanent General's settlement offer. Hill responded that he would need to ascertain all of mother's surviving heirs before the settlement and release agreement could be prepared and executed. In response, Brown represented to Yates that she was mother's sole surviving heir, and, based on that representation, Yates represented to Hill that Brown was the sole surviving heir of mother.

Yates also informed Hill that no estate was being opened for mother and that, by settling with Brown, Permanent General would be settling all claims with all of mother's surviving heirs. Hill had emphasized to Yates and his office staff that Permanent General could not enter into the release and settlement agreement with Brown until all of mother's surviving heirs had been ascertained and made parties to that agreement. Yates told Hill that he understood Permanent General's position with regard to that issue and again represented to Hill that Brown was mother's sole surviving heir.

Based on Yates's representation that Brown was the sole surviving heir of mother, and after receiving a signed declaration from Brown under Code of Civil Procedure section 377.32 regarding Brown's right to settle mother's survival action, Hill wrote a letter to Yates confirming Permanent General's understanding that Brown was mother's sole surviving heir. Hill enclosed a "Release of All Claims" with the letter to Yates. The release contained Permanent General's standard release language and required that Brown execute it as the "sole surviving heir of [mother]." At no time prior to Brown entering into the release did Yates or Brown have a conversation with anyone during which Brown's status as sole surviving heir of mother was limited, circumscribed, or qualified in any way.*fn6

By executing the release, Brown settled her wrongful death claim directly with Permanent General acting on behalf of its insureds, defendants, before any lawsuit was filed. Neither the minor plaintiffs nor their original guardian ad litem, Daniel Moody, ever met with attorney Yates.

After the settlement, plaintiffs filed a wrongful death action against the defendants. Defendants responded to plaintiffs' first amended complaint for wrongful death with a demurrer that the trial court granted with leave to amend. Defendants then demurred to the second amended complaint, but the trial court overruled that demurrer. Defendants next filed the motion for summary judgment that is the subject of this appeal. The trial court entered an order granting summary judgment in favor of defendants and a judgment based on that order. The trial court ruled that the one-action rule, which precludes multiple wrongful death actions against the same defendant by heirs of a decedent, barred the action. Plaintiffs have appealed.

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of ...


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