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In re Estate of Helms

Supreme Court of Nebraska

March 1, 2019

In re Estate of Mark Anthony Helms, deceased.
Gregory L. Turek et al., appellees. Christopher Helms, Personal Representative of the Estate of Mark Anthony Helms, deceased, appellant,

         1. Summary Judgment: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will affirm a lower court's grant of summary judgment if the pleadings and admitted evidence show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts or as to the ultimate inferences that may be drawn from those facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         2. _:_. In reviewing a summary judgment, an appellate court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the judgment was granted and gives that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences deducible from the evidence.

         3. Judgments: Issue Preclusion: Appeal and Error. The applicability of issue preclusion is a question of law. On a question of law, an appellate court reaches a conclusion independent of the court below.

         4. Judgments: Issue Preclusion. Issue preclusion applies where (1) an identical issue was decided in a prior action, (2) the prior action resulted in a final judgment on the merits, (3) the party against whom the doctrine is to be applied was a party or was in privity with a party to the prior action, and (4) there was an opportunity to fully and fairly litigate the issue in the prior action.

         5. Decedents' Estates: Venue. Under Neb. Rev. Stat. § 30-2410(a) (Reissue 2016), venue for probate is proper in the county where the decedent was domiciled or, if the decedent was not domiciled in Nebraska, in any county where property of the decedent was located at the time of his or her death.

          Appeal from the County Court for Butler County: C. Jo Petersen, Judge.

         [302 Neb. 358] Lindsay E. Pedersen and Katherine R. Hall for appellant.

          Gregory M. Neuhaus and Joseph D. Neuhaus, of Neuhaus Law Offices, for appellees.

          Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Funke, Papik, and Freudenberg, JJ.

          CASSEL, J.


         Decades after the tragic death of Mark Anthony Helms in a terrorist bombing, his estate obtained a federal court wrongful death judgment determining that Helms had been domiciled in North Carolina and that damages would be shared according to that state's law. After funds were collected on that judgment, his estate applied to the county court for Butler County, Nebraska, to distribute them instead under a Nebraska wrongful death statute.[1] The county court entered summary judgment, declaring that the proceeds were to be distributed equally to Helms' parents-being his heirs "as existed at the time of his death." We conclude that because of the binding effect of the federal court judgment, the Nebraska wrongful death statute does not apply and the county court properly ordered distribution pursuant to the federal court judgment applying North Carolina law. We affirm the court's entry of summary judgment.


         Wrongful Death and Judgment On October 23, 1983, the Islamic Republic of Iran bombed a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The bombing killed 241 American servicemen, including Helms. Helms, who died intestate, was survived by his parents and two siblings.

         [302 Neb. 359] In 1996, an amendment[2] to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976[3] allowed victims of state-sponsored terrorism to bring claims against foreign sovereigns that would otherwise be immune from civil litigation. In 2001, a claim for the wrongful death of Helms and other servicemen was brought in a case filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The federal court's subsequent memorandum opinion does not name Helms' personal representative, but recites that his estate was a party to the wrongful death action in federal court. At no time did a personal representative of Helms file an action for wrongful death in Nebraska.

         In 2007, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rendered judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran.[4]According to the court's opinion, of the 128 deceased servicemen whose personal representatives and estates brought wrongful death claims, 123 were domiciled in North Carolina and none were domiciled in Nebraska.

         The federal court's opinion specifically stated: "[E]ach of the deceased servicemen has made out a valid claim for wrongful death under North Carolina law. Accordingly, those valid heirs and beneficiaries under North Carolina's intestate statute are entitled to share in the recovery of the damages awarded as a result of each serviceman's untimely death."[5] The court allocated $1, 028, 509 of the judgment to the wrongful death claim brought by the personal representative of Helms' estate. Helms' mother died approximately 5 months prior to the entry of this judgment.

         In 2010, assets belonging to Iran that had been frozen by the U.S. government were discovered. A federal court allowed access to the assets, a decision which the U.S. Supreme Court [302 Neb. 360] later affirmed.[6] In 2016, distribution of the assets commenced. The amount paid to the estate, after payment of ...

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