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Martin v. Summers

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

April 2, 2019

BRYAN KEITH MARTIN AND MARY ELIZABETH MARTIN, Appellants,
v.
CAROLYN SUMMERS, ET AL., Respondents.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Callaway County, Missouri The Honorable Jeff Harris, Judge

          Before: Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Presiding Judge, Gary D. Witt, Judge and Thomas N. Chapman, Judge

          GARY D. WITT, JUDGE

         Bryan Keith Martin and Mary Elizabeth Martin (collectively the "Martins") appeal the judgment of the Circuit Court of Callaway County dismissing their Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Damages Claims for Wrongful Death ("Petition"). The Petition sought a declaration that the Martins were proper parties to bring a wrongful death claim as the equitable adoptive parents of Carl Lee DeBrodie ("DeBrodie"). The Petition was originally brought against a number of defendants but, following voluntary dismissals in the circuit court, the Respondents before this Court are Carolyn Summers (who is the biological mother of DeBrodie) ("Summers") and Carol Samson, (who is the personal representative of the Estate of Carl Lee DeBrodie and Next Friend to Summers) ("Samson") (collectively, "Defendants") and Second Chance Homes of Fulton, LLC ("Second Chance Homes"). Following the filing of this appeal and briefing of the issues, the Martins moved to dismiss the appeal as to Second Chance Homes, leaving only the Defendants as Respondent's in this action. The Martins bring seven allegations of error on appeal. We affirm.

         Factual Background[1]

         The relevant and somewhat tortured legal history of this case began in 1999. In September 1999, the Cole County Circuit Court appointed Mary Martin to be the legal guardian of DeBrodie, who was then thirteen years old and considered a special needs child. In the guardianship judgment, that court found that DeBrodie's biological mother, Summers, was "severely intellectually, psychologically, socially, and occupationally impaired" and that both she and DeBrodie's biological father[2] were unable or unfit to assume the duties of guardianship. The court found that grounds existed to terminate the parental rights of DeBrodie's mother as to DeBrodie and his younger sister, but found that termination would not be in the children's best interest. Mary Martin continued to serve as DeBrodie's legal guardian until 2004 when he turned eighteen and he lived with the Martin's in their home. At some point after DeBrodie turned 18, the Callaway County Circuit Court adjudged DeBrodie to be an incapacitated and disabled adult. DeBrodie became a ward of the Public Administrator of Callaway County and a new legal guardian was appointed.

         In 2011, the Martins sought to legally adopt DeBrodie as an incapacitated and disabled adult. In re DeBrodie, 400 S.W.3d 881, 883 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013) ("In re DeBrodie I"); In re DeBrodie, 452 S.W.3d 644 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014) ("In re DeBrodie II").[3] The adoption was initially denied by the circuit court due to DeBrodie's inability to consent to the adoption. This Court reversed and remanded that judgment finding, under the circumstances, DeBrodie's consent was not statutorily required. In re DeBrodie I, 400 S.W.3d at 889. On remand, the circuit court heard additional evidence and, thereafter, denied the Martins' petition for adoption on the grounds that they failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence the fitness or propriety of the adoption, or that the welfare of DeBrodie demanded that the adoption be granted. This Court affirmed the judgment, in part based on a consideration of the familial ties between DeBrodie and his mother that would be severed by such an adoption. In re DeBrodie II, 452 S.W.3d at 648-51. DeBrodie's father was deceased but DeBrodie received a monthly monetary death benefit through his father, although it was unclear how much it was or where the benefit derived. Id. at 653. DeBrodie maintained a close relationship with his mother who:

visited him at least once a month, more if transportation allowed, and engaged in weekly telephone conversations with [DeBrodie]. [DeBrodie] references his mother as "Momma." [DeBrodie] and his mother share an undisputed affectionate bond. [DeBrodie] exhibits excitement when his mother is scheduled to call or visit and asks for his hair to be done or to put on special clothing. He cries when she is unable to visit.

In re DeBrodie II, 452 S.W.3d at 648. This Court found that "mentally incapacitated adults have a significant liberty interest in protecting their intact familial ties from interference by a third party." Id. Further, although there was certainly some evidence that DeBrodie would benefit from being adopted by the Martins, the circuit court's finding to the contrary was not against the weight of the evidence. Id. at 656.

         In 2017, DeBrodie was a resident of Second Chance Homes. Second Chance Homes reported DeBrodie missing on April 17, 2017. On April 24, 2017, DeBrodie's body was found encased in concrete inside a locked storage unit in Fulton.

         The Martins filed their Petition on April 9, 2018. The Petition named as defendants Summers and Samson as well as Second Chance Homes, and the unknown parties responsible for DeBrodie's death. The Petition sought a declaration that the Martins were entitled to sue for wrongful death pursuant to section 537.080[4] as the equitable adoptive parents of DeBrodie. The Petition also sought declarations that the Martins were entitled to recover from all defendants--other than Summers and Sampson--compensatory and aggravated damages in the amount of twenty-one million dollars for the negligent death of DeBrodie and twenty-one million dollars for the intentional torts which caused the wrongful death of DeBrodie.

         On May 21, 2018, Summers and Samson filed a joint Motion to Dismiss ("Motion to Dismiss") alleging the Martins lacked the legal capacity to sue, citing to Rule 55.27(a)(3).[5] Second Chance Homes filed a separate Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings on June 22, 2018. The circuit court held a hearing on both motions and entered judgment dismissing the Petition on July 17, 2018[6]("Judgment"). The Court dismissed the Petition for four stated reasons: (1) the Martins lacked standing to bring a wrongful death claim pursuant to section 537.080 because they were not the natural or adoptive parents of DeBrodie; (2) the Martins' claims are barred by res judicata, in that their attempt at equitable adoption has already been adjudicated and rejected in other proceedings (referencing the Martins' previous adoption proceedings); (3) Missouri does not recognize a right for "equitable parents" to recover on behalf of a deceased child; and (4) only one action may be brought under section 537.080 for the death of DeBrodie and there is an existing previously filed lawsuit that bars the current action. The Judgment dismissed all claims and all defendants.[7] This appeal followed.[8]

         Motion to Dismiss

         After the conclusion of the briefing in this matter, the Martins filed a Motion to Dismiss this appeal as to Second Chance Homes. The Martins alleged in that motion that on December 5, 2018, a judgment was entered under seal in a wrongful death case regarding the death of DeBrodie brought by the Defendants in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri ("Federal Judgment"). According to the Martins, the Federal Judgment releases Second Chance Homes from all further liability for the death of DeBrodie and as such, renders this appeal moot as to Second Chance Homes. Second Chance Homes filed Suggestions in Opposition which did not dispute that the Federal Judgment renders this appeal moot as to Second Chance Homes but contends that the appeal is now moot in its entirety. The Defendants filed no response to that motion. The Martins argue that the appeal, as to ...


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