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Had Raymond Corder filed for divorce from his wife, or just moved out of their home before he died, Orange County Superior Court Judge Randell Wilkinson might have had an easier task. As it was, the judge had to rely on his own wits � and conflicting testimony � in granting the deceased man’s daughter the lion’s share of a $1.1 million wrongful death settlement. Evidence at trial supported the daughter’s claim that Corder was about to leave his wife. But on Monday, the California Supreme Court seemed to indicate during oral arguments in San Francisco that judges should be given more solid guidelines in determining how to divvy up settlements, especially when dealing with bitterly divided heirs. Justice Carlos Moreno first broached the concept of a bright-line rule. But four other justices soon followed suit, raising possible signposts like legally separating, filing for divorce or consulting a divorce lawyer. And some of the justices � not to mention the wife’s lawyer � also raised questions about whether judges even have the authority to apportion settlements. A couple of the justices noted that some state statutes discuss only apportioning trial court awards, not settlements. Corder died in a construction accident in May 2001. Soon thereafter Shaoping “Sherry” Corder, his wife of eight months, and Lisa Corder, his adult daughter from a previous marriage, filed separate wrongful death suits against his employer, Morrow Equipment Co. The cases were later consolidated. Following trial, a settlement was reached awarding the women $1.1 million. But they couldn’t agree on apportionment. At a subsequent trial, testimony was provided by friends and acquaintances that Corder was planning to divorce his wife. And though it wasn’t admitted as evidence, the judge heard allegations that Corder suspected his wife of engaging in prostitution behind his back. Judge Wilkinson gave great weight to the testimony about an impending divorce, allocating 90 percent of the settlement money to Corder’s daughter and 10 percent to his wife. A split Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed ( .pdf) Wilkinson. Dissenting Justice David Sills argued ( .pdf) that the majority had “pretty much ignored about 150 years of California case law dealing with wrongful-death damages,” and that the money shouldn’t be allocated based on evidence of Corder’s plans to leave his wife. During arguments Monday, the high court gave signs it felt that the testimony provided at trial � which a couple of the justices called hearsay � wasn’t enough for Judge Wilkinson to speculate that the couple would have divorced had he lived. “How can one reasonably conclude that statement is going to be acted upon?” Justice Marvin Baxter asked Chicago attorney G. David Tenenbaum, one of two lawyers representing the daughter. “A lot of people say they want to get out of marriages,” he added, but don’t act upon their impulses. Tenenbaum argued that judges need to make their decisions case by case based on the credibility of the witnesses, not through guidelines set in stone. When Justice Moreno asked why Corder’s daughter deserved more than $900,000 of the settlement, Tenenbaum talked about their “especially unique, symbiotic relationship” during which he frequently took her skiing, camping and fishing, helped her buy a new car and assisted with college tuition. “How does all the past activity affect a claim for future support?” Moreno asked. The wife’s lawyer, John Heubeck of El Segundo, argued that couples stay in relationships for all kinds of reasons and that a potential divorce � which he denied was going to happen � wasn’t a proper basis for apportioning the settlement. “We need a bright line,” he argued. Newport Beach lawyer Ronald Harrington, Tenenbaum’s co-counsel, faced tough questioning about whether judges have the jurisdiction to apportion settlements. “So,” Justice Ming Chin asked one lawyer, “what’s the [legal] source for allocating?” Harrington pointed to six appellate rulings in California that have found no substantial difference in awards and settlements. And under pointed questioning by Justice Joyce Kennard � who seemed to be in his corner � Harrington agreed that a separate section of the Code of Civil Procedure lets judges determine the “ultimate rights” of parties “when the justice of the case requires it.” The case is Corder v. Corder, S138666.

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