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In a wrongful death compromise case, the court determined that regardless of their mental health issues, a person cannot profit from their wrongdoing. In re Demesyeux, 978 N.Y.S.2d 608 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2013)


In re Demesyeux, 978 N.Y.S.2d 608 (N.Y. Surr. Ct. 2013) the Surrogate’s Court considered an issue related to the wrongful deaths of 3 children and who was entitled to receive benefit from the proceeds of a wrongful death lawsuit. The case was tragic, as it involved a mother who suffered from mental illness, killing her three young children. While typically the parents would be a minor child’s next of kin, entitled them to share in any wrongful death compensation awarded, this case was unique because one of the parents caused the wrongful death of the children.

Background Facts
Leatrice Brewer confessed to drowning her three children aged 1, 5, and 6, in the bathtub of her New Cassel apartment on Long Island in February 2008. After drowning them, Brewer placed the lifeless bodies of her children on a bed and attempted to end her own life by swallowing a toxic concoction of household cleaning chemicals. When this attempt failed to claim her life, Brewer resorted to jumping out of her second-story window. She survived.

Instead of standing trial for the three counts of murder hanging over her, Brewer pleaded not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect. The psychiatric evaluation revealed that she suffered from a major depressive disorder. Brewer’s rationale for the murders was rooted in a belief that she was saving her children from the potentially fatal effects of voodoo.

Caseworkers from Nassau County’s social services agency visited Brewer’s apartment two days before the killings and found no one home but neglected to schedule an immediate follow-up visit. Two social workers were later suspended. The father’s of Brewer’s children filed lawsuits against Nassau County. They were settled for a total of $350,000.

Brewer sought a portion of the $350,000 settlement.

The financial entanglement in this tragic narrative weaves through lawsuits initiated by the fathers of the children. These legal actions targeted Nassau County, alleging that social services workers failed to adequately monitor Brewer, contributing to the horrific outcome. The money in question, stemming from the settlements with Nassau County, forms a pivotal aspect of the legal conundrum at the heart of this case.

Can a person found not criminally responsible due to mental disease, claim a share of the proceeds from a wrongful death compromise arising from the deaths they caused?

Leatrice Brewer was disqualified as a distributee of her children’s estates. Drawing from legal doctrines, including Riggs v. Palmer, the court asserted that one should not profit from their own wrong, even when shielded from criminal punishment due to mental health considerations.

The court examined the wrongful death statute, emphasizing the requirement for “fair and just compensation” for pecuniary injuries. It scrutinized whether Brewer’s plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect affected her eligibility for a share of the settlement proceeds. This analysis involved a delicate balance between recognizing mental health nuances and safeguarding equitable principles.

The court considered precedents like Matter of Sabol and Matter of Pesante, where parents were disqualified from wrongful death proceeds due to abusive or neglectful actions leading to their children’s deaths. However, Brewer’s case presented a unique challenge with her plea of not criminally responsible.

The court grappled with the tension between two moral imperatives – the acknowledgment of mental health issues as a defense against criminal punishment and the reluctance to allow a wrongdoer to benefit from their actions. Drawing from the dissent in Ford v. Ford, the court argued that moral responsibility transcends criminal accountability.

The court scrutinized Brewer’s mental state, emphasizing her admissions about the intentional nature of her actions. While acknowledging her mental disease or defect, the court asserted that Brewer, by her own admission, possessed the mens rea necessary for disqualification as a distributee. The court adopted what it termed the “Brewer Rule,” asserting that mental health considerations should not absolve moral responsibility and financial disqualification.

In navigating the uncharted waters of this case, the court sought to deliver justice that transcended legal technicalities. The decision sets a precedent, underscoring the delicate dance between mental health considerations, moral responsibility, and equitable principles in cases of wrongful death compromises. As the legal landscape evolves, this case stands as a testament to the courts’ commitment to fair and just outcomes, even in the face of complex and morally charged circumstances.

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