In the strangest wrinkle yet in a legal drama that pits the state of Florida and the family of a DUI crash victim against a Houston millionaire, the girlfriend of John Goodman is now his daughter.
The heir to an air-conditioning fortune and the founder of the International Polo Club Palm Beach, Goodman, 48, has legally adopted 42-year-old Heather Hutchins. The adoption, which took place in Miami four months ago but was not publicly disclosed until this week, potentially allows Hutchins to control a third of the assets of a trust fund with hundreds of millions in assets that Goodman set up for his two other children.
The fact that Goodman is being sued over a fatal DUI accident in Palm Beach County has nothing to do with the adoption, his attorney says.
Perhaps, but the maneuver has stunned the judge in the civil case, who called it "unprecedented" and "surreal." The move takes the court into a "legal twilight zone," the judge said.
Authorities say Goodman was driving drunk in his Bentley convertible on Feb. 12, 2010, when he ran a stop sign and smashed into a car driven by Scott Patrick Wilson, 23. Goodman fled the scene and, when found later, he reportedly had a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit.
Goodman has pleaded not guilty to vehicular homicide and faces a criminal trial March 6. The wrongful death lawsuit filed by Wilson's parents is scheduled to go to trial in late March.
Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley had previously ruled that the civil jury should not be told of the trust fund set up for Goodman's two minor children, saying it might encourage jurors to impose a larger financial penalty. Now the trust is effectively split three ways, the Palm Beach Post says, due to the adoption of Hutchins.
Because of her age, Hutchins can avoid the legal stipulation that does not allow beneficiaries to take from the fund until they are 35.
Attorneys for the Wilsons say that Goodman is using the trust to shield his assets and then adopting his girlfriend so he can use her to gain access to that money.
Goodman is worth "several hundred million dollars," his civil attorney, Dan Bachi, says. But Bachi says Hutchins' adoption was done to ensure the future stability of his children and family investments. "It has nothing to do with the lawsuit," he said.
The judge has not ruled on the issue yet, but so far seems to be siding with the Wilsons. "The defendant has effectively diverted a significant portion of the assets of the children's trust to a person with whom he is intimately involved at a time when his personal assets are largely at risk in this case," Kelley wrote in court documents.
Goodman divorced his first wife in 2008 after 22 years of marriage.
His wealth came courtesy of his late father. Harold V. Goodman founded Goodman Manufacturing, which became a major manufacturer of air-conditioning systems. His family sold the business in 2004 for a reported $1.4 billion.
John Goodman converted his father's horse farm into a polo ranch and later began building his empire. His polo club became a magnet for the rich and famous, entertaining the likes of Prince Charles, Sylvester Stallone and Charlton Heston.
The Wilsons' lawyer, Chris Searcy, says Goodman is much richer than his financial documents show. He told the New Times of Miami that Goodman's wealth is buried in numerous trusts and companies.
In 2002, Goodman sold his Wellington estate to his children's trust fund for $3.8 million, and now rents it — for $2,000 a month, New Times reported
Reporting: Los Angeles Times, Palm Beach Post, Houston Chronicle, Daily Mail (London)