MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Prince's family members has been quietly dismissed in recent months, suggesting family members have reached settlements with defendants including the Minnesota doctor who saw Prince in the weeks before his death and the Illinois hospital that treated him for an opioid overdose seven days before he died.
The dismissals largely close one legal chapter in the superstar's legacy, even as efforts drag on to value and dispose of his estate once pegged at around $200 million.
Prince was 57 when he died of an accidental fentanyl overdose on April 21, 2016, without leaving a will. No one was criminally charged in his death and the source of the counterfeit pills that killed him remains unknown.
Prince’s heirs filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a slew of defendants in April 2018, alleging they had the duty and opportunity to diagnose and treat Prince's addiction and prevent his death, but failed to do so.
But as early as last summer, plaintiffs began dismissing defendants.
Claims against Dr. Michael Schulenberg — a doctor who treated Prince in the weeks before his death — were permanently dismissed in November, along with claims against Schulenberg’s former employer. Both sides agreed to the dismissals.
Claims against Walgreens, which filled prescriptions for Prince, and Trinity Medical Center, the Illinois hospital where Prince was treated for an opioid overdose a week before he died, were also permanently dismissed in August by agreement.
Attorneys in the case either declined comment or did not return messages to The Associated Press. But Henry Blair, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the dismissal language — with agreement by defendants and plaintiffs — leaves him “99.99% sure those are settlements.”
A medical negligence claim against Howard Kornfeld, a California addiction specialist who was contacted by Prince’s associates before he died, was dismissed by a judge in September, but remains alive on appeal. Prince’s family says Kornfeld had a duty to advise Prince’s associates that he should be immediately admitted for treatment. But the judge found no evidence that Kornfeld ever communicated with Prince or that a doctor-patient relationship was established.
An autopsy found Prince overdosed on fentanyl. Authorities said it was likely Prince didn't know he was taking the synthetic opioid that is 50 times more powerful than heroin.
Authorities said Schulenberg admitted prescribing the opioid oxycodone to Prince’s bodyguard in the days before Prince died, knowing the drug would go to Prince. He disputes that allegation, although he paid $30,000 to settle a federal civil violation alleging the drug was prescribed illegally.
The bodyguard, Kirk Johnson, was deposed during the wrongful death litigation, but refused to answer nearly all of the questions, according to a transcript.
Meanwhile, Prince's siblings are still waiting to learn how much his estate is worth. Court filings several months after Prince's death suggested the estate was worth around $200 million before taxes. More recent filings suggest the estate and Internal Revenue Service have not yet agreed on its value.
Protracted litigation isn't unusual for big estates, even when there is a will. The fight between pop superstar Michael Jackson's estate and the IRS over valuing his estate continues in federal tax court, even though he died in 2009.
The lengthy proceedings are stretching some of the siblings' resources. In recent months, one of Prince's sisters, Tyka Nelson, sold a portion of her share of the estate for an undisclosed amount to Primary Wave, a music publisher that also holds interests in the estates of Whitney Houston and other musicians. Nelson wrote in an affidavit that she did that to “realize some value from the Estate before the completion of the Estate administration.” Nelson also appointed Primary Wave to act on her behalf with respect to her remaining share of the estate.
A brother, Alfred Jackson, also entered an agreement with Primary Wave before he died in August. Now, a separate case sorting out Jackson's estate is pending in Missouri, according to court documents.
One court filing says Primary Wave has invested millions to acquire an interest in the estate. Law firms have also issued attorneys' liens against the interest of some siblings.
Attorneys involved either declined comment or did not return messages. Attempts to reach some of the siblings were unsuccessful.
While no one is contesting Tyka Nelson's agreement with Primary Wave, three siblings say the company should not be recognized as an “interested person” with similar rights as the heirs in the estate as the case proceeds. Sharon, Norrine and John Nelson said in a court filing that they are stretched financially and that the case has "cost the Estate millions of dollars, wasting far too much money on legal fees and other costs for far too long.”
Susan Link, a Minneapolis estate attorney not involved in the case, said the sibling disagreements have stalled resolution.
“If the beneficiaries are agreeing and working together in lock-step, it doesn’t matter how much the estate is worth, you can get things done,” Link said.
Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski contributed to this story.