An Illinois appeals court has affirmed the settlement in a case involving a Northwestern University football player who tragically died on the football field following a preseason conditioning drill.
In so ruling, the panel dismissed the appeal of Linda A. Will and George Wheeler, Jr., the parents of Rashidi Wheeler, who had argued that the trial court did not have the authority to direct the acceptance of the settlement and execute documents over their objections.
After the incident occurred on August 3, 2001, Will and Wheeler (Rashidi’s mother and father) were appointed co-administrators of his estate. Five days later, they filed a wrongful death and survival action against defendants-appellees and cross-appellants Northwestern University and several of its employees, including Charles Taylor, Randall Walker, Jerry Brown, Terrance Aggeler, Larry Lilja, Thomas Christian, Justin Chabot, and Michael Rose.
After years of litigation, which included the appointment of a guardian ad litem, a bankruptcy proceeding, a mediation, a demand for settlement and an objection to this settlement most recently by Will, the trial court approved a settlement in the amount of $16 million. Will, both individually and in her capacity as co-administrator, and other members of the estate appealed the settlement, “contending that the trial court did not have the authority to direct the acceptance of the settlement and execute documents over co-administrator Linda’s objection,” wrote the court. “Having assumed that liability has been resolved in their favor and against Northwestern, they ask that we vacate the settlement and remand the matter for a trial on the sole issue of damages.”
The defendants countered that argument, contending that (1) the plaintiffs have no standing to challenge the settlement; (2) the trial court did have the authority to accept the settlement in the name of the Estate; and (3) even if the court improperly accepted the settlement, the appropriate remedy is not a trial solely on damages but, rather, a remand for trial on all issues, including liability.
Northwestern, which has already paid out the settlement sum into an escrow account, also filed a cross-appeal, contending that the trial court erred in failing to include certain express language in its judgment regarding the return of the settlement proceeds to it if the settlement is set aside. “Thus, Northwestern asks that we dismiss the instant appeal for lack of standing or, alternatively, that we affirm the judgment of the trial court; Northwestern further asks that, were we to reverse the judgment, we remand with instructions to order the return of the settlement proceeds, with accrued interest, to it.”
In approving the settlement, the trial court had reasoned that “when a suit is brought for survival and wrongful death, it is prosecuted by the estate for the benefit of all the heirs, not for the individual benefit of the administrators. Thus, while Linda would have the right to reject a settlement offer of her own accord, ‘this case does not belong to [her] alone’ as ‘she is not the only heir.’ The court declared that it had considered all the evidence, including the guardian’s report, the circumstances surrounding Rashidi and his death, and the nonfinancial relief sought by Linda that ‘could never be awarded to her or the estate by any jury’ (emphasis in original) and which had prompted her to reject the settlement. It determined that the recommended settlement was ‘a superb result for this litigation’ and that there was ‘no reasonable expectation that a better result could be achieved by further mediation’ but, rather, ‘an immense risk that the proposed settlement amount could be greatly diminished’ if the cause proceeded to trial. Ultimately, the court held that it was ‘in the best interests of the minor heirs to approve and accept the proposed settlement,’ and that no proceedings in the probate court were necessary. Accordingly, the court ordered that the proposed settlement of $16 million be approved and stated that it would execute any required document on Linda’s behalf to effectuate it.”
The appeals court affirmed, finding that “the trial court not only had the power to accept the settlement and execute all pertinent documents, but that it did so properly and without any abuse of its discretion. Linda, as the Estate’s representative, refused to effectuate the settlement in direct contradiction to the trial court’s reasoned determination that the settlement was in the best interest of the minor beneficiaries she had been entrusted to represent. While she as an adult plaintiff would otherwise have the ability to reject any settlement no matter how advantageous to her in an individual cause of action, this was not the case here, where we have already concluded she did not have an individual cause. Rather, she stood in this cause as a co-administrator and, as such, the trial court here had a duty to prevent the rejection of this settlement, which it determined to be in the best interest of the minors, regardless of whether it impeded her ability to control her minor child Hershel or to direct the resolution of the case as co-administrator of Rashidi’s estate.”
Linda A. Will et al. v. Northwestern University et al.; App. Ct. Ill., 1st Dist, 5th Div.; Nos. 1-06-1566, 1-06-1642 and 1-06-1643 (cons.), 2007 Ill. App. LEXIS 1294; 12/ 14/07
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) David A. Novoselsky and Leslie J. Rosen, Novoselsky Law Offices, Chicago, IL. Thomas A. Demetrio, Corboy & Demetrio, Chicago IL; Michael T. Reagan, Herbolsheimer, Lannon, Henson, Duncan & Reagan, P.C., Ottawa, IL. (for defendants) Eugene A. Schoon, Constantine L. Trela, Jr., and James R.M. Hemmings, Sidley Austin LLP, Chicago, IL.