Barlow v. Finegan, --- A.3d ----, 2013 WL 5469981 Del. Oct. 1, 2013
The Delaware Supreme Court Determines That All Settlements Of Tort Claims Involving Minors Must Be Approved By The Court Exercising Independent Judicial Determination Regarding The Fairness Of The Settlement.
In the Barlow case, one of the minor Plaintiffs appealed the Superior Court’s Order enforcing the parties’ settlement agreement wherein two minor plaintiffs would split $15,000.00 ($7,500.00 each). The lower court issued an order enforcing the settlement agreement but did not conduct a minor settlement hearing. The Delaware Supreme Court initially vacated the Superior Court’s order enforcing the settlement based on the fact that a minor settlement hearing was not conducted. The Supreme Court opined that pursuant to 12 Del. C. § 3926 and Superior Court Civil Rule 133(c), a hearing on the proposed minor settlement and court approval are mandatory before a minor tort settlement can become final. The court stated that parties cannot rely on the authority of guardians of minors in settling tort claims and must seek approval from the court.
On remand, the Superior Court held a minor settlement hearing and determined that the $7,500.00 settlement amount for each minor was reasonable. In approving the minor settlement, however, the Superior Court stated that absent the settlement agreement and viewing the damages of each minor plaintiff, the court would have awarded $5,000 to one minor and $10,000 to the other. Nevertheless, the Superior Court approved the settlement agreement as proposed, with both minors each receiving $7,500.00.
The minor tort settlement, as approved by the Superior Court, was again appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. The Supreme Court further elaborated on it earlier ruling and stated that pursuant to 12 Del. C. § 3929 and Superior Court Rule 133, the Court is required to exercise independent judgment on a “clean slate” in determining the appropriateness of settlements involving minors and shall not rely on the guardian’s authority to settle tort claims.
Therefore, the Delaware Supreme Court has made it clear that tort settlements involving minor plaintiffs do not become final or binding unless and until court approval is sought and obtained. Furthermore, the court is required to exercise independent judicial determination regarding whether the tort settlement agreement for the minor should be approved. According the Delaware Supreme Court, the trial court should focus on medical or other evidence satisfactory to the court in approving such minor settlements.