A judge is baffled over John Goodman’s recent adoption of Heather Laruso Hutchins, now 42. The couple is shown at a 2009 Houston society event. (Dave Rossman/Chronicle file)
By Mike Tolson, Houston Chronicle
In the strangest wrinkle yet in a legal drama that pits the state of Florida and a car crash victim against a polo-obsessed Houston millionaire, the girlfriend of John Goodman is now his daughter.
The move may impact a suit filed against Goodman in a fatal crash. He was charged with vehicular homicide in Florida.
The heir to an air-conditioning fortune, Goodman, 48, has legally adopted 42-year-old Heather Laruso Hutchins, whom he has been dating since 2009. The adoption, which took place in October 2011 but was not publicly disclosed until Tuesday, potentially allows Hutchins to control a third of the assets of a trust fund he set up for his two other children.
A Florida judge called the action “surreal” and a step into a “legal twilight zone” in a recent related ruling. The purpose of the adoption, however, is likely rooted in practical financial matters. Because of her age, Hutchins can avoid the legal stipulation that does not allow beneficiaries to take from the fund until they are 35.
Lawsuit, criminal case
Whether the move could have any effect on a civil trial brought by the parents of Scott Wilson, killed in a collision with Goodman’s Bentley in February 2010, is uncertain. An engineering graduate, Wilson was 23 when Goodman allegedly ran a stop sign and knocked Wilson’s car into a drainage ditch. He drowned.
Wilson’s parents filed a wrongful death suit against Goodman that is set for trial in late March. The state has charged Goodman with vehicular homicide, claiming that Goodman had a blood alcohol content more than twice the legal limit when he allegedly ran a stop sign and ran into Wilson.
That trial, too, is scheduled for March. Goodman, also charged with driving under the influence manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident, faces up to 30 years in prison.
Florida Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley ruled in October 2011 that the civil jury should not be told of the trust fund, saying it might encourage jurors to impose a larger financial penalty than they would otherwise, even though Goodman has no access to the irrevocable trust.
A jury award inflated by awareness of the trust might end up bankrupting Goodman, the judge ruled, and that would violate Florida law. Lawyers for Lili and William Wilson have appealed that ruling.
How the adoption might affect the exposure of Goodman’s assets to a potential jury award is unclear, as the trust money already is off limits. It’s also a matter of speculation whether a future probate court will recognize Hutchins as a legitimate trust beneficiary.
Kelley said that for the purposes of the civil trial, he will recognize the adoption as legitimate. One effect that seems apparent is that Goodman has the potential to achieve some immediate benefit of the money set aside for his children. The trust reportedly requires disbursement of 70 percent of the sum to which the beneficiary is entitled once they turn 35.
“By way of this adoption, John Goodman now effectively owns one third of the trust assets,” William Wilsons’ attorney, Scott Smith, told the Palm Beach Post. “It cannot go unrecognized that he chose to adopt his 42-year-old adult girlfriend as opposed to a needy child.”
Dan Bachi, Goodman’s civil attorney, told the Post the odd maneuver was undertaken to assure the stability of investments.
Goodman’s Bentley after the crash (Palm Beach Post file)
“It has nothing to do with the lawsuit currently pending against him,” Bachi said.
Kelley called the adoption “unprecedented,” though legal experts have cited cases of adult adoption, most done for reasons pertaining to inheritance and estate planning.
Goodman’s wealth came courtesy of his father. Harold V. Goodman founded the Goodman Manufacturing Co. and pioneered the use of flexible ductwork, later becoming a major manufacturer of air-conditioning systems.
John Goodman worked for the company after gaining a marketing degree, but business interested him less than polo.
Over the last two decades he has been one of polo’s largest American benefactors.