Ronald Goldman's divorced parents reached agreement Wednesday on how to divide the $8.5 million a jury awarded them for the loss of their son--but future negotiations could prove much tougher as the three parties with claims on O.J. Simpson's assets struggle to sort out who gets what.
Wednesday's agreement grants Fred Goldman 85% of the compensatory damage award. His former wife, Sharon Rufo, will receive 15%. By law, the two must split in equal shares the $12.5 million in punitive damages that the jury ordered Simpson to pay Ronald Goldman's estate.
The lopsided division of the compensatory damages reflects Rufo's distant relationship with her son in the decade before his murder. Though she spoke to him twice by phone--exchanging small talk about his new haircut and his appearance on the television show "Studs"--she did not see him at all.
Goldman, in contrast, raised his son from childhood and remained close to him even when Ron moved into his own apartment in Brentwood. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in the civil trial came when the plaintiffs showed jurors a video of Goldman and his son laughing and singing together at a relative's bat mitzvah a few months before the murders.
"This appears to be a generous award to Rufo given her sparse relationship with Ron and the fact that Goldman [and his attorneys] carried the burden of proving the case in court," said Loyola Law School Associate Dean Laurie Levenson, who watched both parents' testimony about their relationship with Ron. "But she did suffer a genuine loss, as any mother would."
Attorneys for Goldman and Rufo said their clients were eager to settle the matter quickly--and in private. Both sides have said they did not press the civil lawsuit against Simpson for money, and neither wanted to squabble over dollars in a public hearing.
"This was about splitting up money, which we didn't think was important enough to fight over in court," Goldman attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli said.
Rufo's lawyer, Michael Brewer, agreed. His client "didn't care, really" about the money, he said, and simply wanted to settle the issue without delay.
Despite the amicable settlement, analysts saw signs that conflicts could emerge in the months and years to come as the plaintiffs scrap to wring every dollar out of Simpson.
One possible sign of trouble ahead: Petrocelli and Brewer on Wednesday filed separate papers codifying the verdicts for their respective clients. Attorneys for Nicole Brown Simpson's estate will file their own judgment papers today.
Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki had ordered Petrocelli to draw up a single document setting forth the verdicts for all three plaintiffs: Goldman, Rufo and the estate of Nicole Brown Simpson. But Petrocelli decided instead to file a judgment on behalf of Goldman alone.
And, although his team previously spoke of cooperating with all the plaintiffs in seizing Simpson's assets, Petrocelli said Wednesday that he "will be pursuing the collection certainly separately from the Browns."
The move to file separate judgments caught the Brown family lawyers by surprise. And it could set up an awkward struggle pitting Fred Goldman against young Sydney and Justin Simpson. As beneficiaries of their slain mother's estate, the Simpson children share a $12.5-million punitive damage verdict.
If Fujisaki upholds the concept of separate judgments--he must rule within 15 calendar days--he would touch off "a race for the money," said Joseph T. Cook, an Irvine attorney who handles many cases with multiple plaintiffs.
The rule for such races is simple: finders keepers. In other words, whoever finds an asset first (and takes the proper judicial steps to seize it) gets to keep it. In some cases, the fight over assets could come down to who gets the proper piece of paper from the court clerk first.
To grab property, a plaintiff needs to get a court document that allows him to attach a lien in the county records department. To seize an auto, the plaintiff must get another document to present the Department of Motor Vehicles. To take furniture or art--or Simpson's Heisman Trophy--requires yet another court document, called a "writ of possession," said Encino business attorney Ronald Michelman.
"Personally, I think it would be a nightmare if there are three separate judgments," Michelman said. "Then you'd have a horse race among all three, and that's not very equitable."
Of the three plaintiffs, the Goldmans' lawyers have the most resources to help them track down Simpson's funds. Their law firm of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp boasts considerable expertise in business law, and has already demonstrated a willingness to pour money into the case.
But Simpson could possibly throw the race to his children by transferring assets to them before the Goldmans can seize them. If that happened, the plaintiffs' attorneys could sue him for fraudulent transfers. But a few analysts said the move might well be legal.