When an individual passes away due to another party’s negligence, the law provides that the decedent’s claim for damages should not simply disappear. Instead, two types of potential claims can be brought in response to the death. In some states, the decedent’s claim passes to immediate relatives like a spouse or children through “survival” statutes, and these family members can claim the decedent’s damages from the injury. Alternatively, in some states, immediate relatives instead can bring a wrongful death claim. This is a claim that is based not on the damages that the decedent experienced but on the damages the immediate relatives experienced as a result of the decedent’s death. Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court clarified that Tennessee has a hybrid statute that combines these two types of claims and allows immediate relatives to bring their own lawsuits after a family member dies.
In this Tennessee wrongful death decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court considered the case of Mr. H. Mr. H.’s wife had elective surgery to treat colon cancer in 2004. After the surgery, she began to experience various medical complications. Almost a week later, she was re-admitted to the hospital, but it was too late because she was already in septic shock. Despite attempts to treat her, Mrs. H. died several hours later. Almost a year later and just before the statute of limitations deadline, Mr. H. filed a pro se wrongful death complaint, alleging that the hospital failed to treat Mrs. H. properly and that Mr. H. was entitled to damages as a result of her death.
The defendants immediately moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Mr. H. could only bring his claims as a representative of Mrs. H.’s estate, rather than as his own personal claims. Furthermore, they argued that only attorneys can bring representative claims, and since Mr. H. was not an attorney, his complaint had to be dismissed. The lower court denied the motions, finding that while a decedent’s immediate relative brings a wrongful death claim on behalf of the estate, representing all of the beneficiaries’ interests, since Mr. H. was the only beneficiary of the estate, he could bring the claim in a personal capacity.