Tolling the Statute of Limitations in Tennessee Wrongful Death Cases

Under Tennessee law, family members of individuals wrongly killed as a result of another’s actions may sue for damages under the Tennessee Wrongful Death Statute.  However, wrongful death claims cannot be brought whenever a family member wishes to bring one, but instead they must be brought within the statute of limitations (deadline period) for such claims. While this is generally a hard and fast rule, in certain circumstances, the statute of limitations period can be “tolled” or put on hold until a family member makes a proper claim. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals considers whether a pro se complaint incorrectly filed within the statute of limitations period tolls the deadline such that a later, correctly filed complaint is also timely.

In Beard v. Branson et al., Ruth Hartley underwent colon surgery performed by Dr. Branson. After the surgery, Ms. Hartley developed complications from the surgery, but Dr. Branson dismissed the medical issues as insignificant. Ms. Hartley’s condition deteriorated, and she passed away on September 29, 2004. A year later, in September 2005, Mr. Hartley, the surviving spouse, filed a pro se (without representation) wrongful death complaint against Dr. Branson. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Branson moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it was incorrectly filed, and for that reason it was void. In the meantime, the statute of limitations had also expired under Tennessee’s Wrongful Death Statute.

While the motion to dismiss was pending, Mr. Hartley obtained an attorney, who filed an amended complaint. The court ultimately denied the motion to dismiss. Mr. Hartley later passed away during the proceedings, and his daughter, Ms. Beard, was substituted as the plaintiff. At trial, Ms. Beard was awarded $750,000 in damages. On appeal, the defendant argued that Mr. Hartley’s complaint should have been dismissed because the initial complaint was void, and the amended complaint was time-barred.

According to the defendants, Mr. Hartley could not assert his own wrongful death claim under the wrongful death statute. Instead, he was making his claim as a representative of his deceased wife, who was the one killed by Dr. Branson’s actions.  However, Mr. Hartley’s initial pro se complaint did not assert claims as a representative. Moreover, since Mr. Hartley was not an attorney, he was not legally permitted to assert claims as a representative.  Accordingly, the defendants argued that Mr. Hartley’s complaint was incorrectly filed and was void. Furthermore, since it was void, it did not toll the statute of limitations, which expired before Mr. Hartley filed a corrected complaint. The appellate court agreed, finding that Mr. Hartley’s original complaint was improper and therefore void.  Additionally, since the complaint was void, it could not toll the statute of limitations. Instead, it was as though no complaint had been filed at all. Thus, when the amended complaint was later filed, the statute of limitations period had not been put on hold, and the clock had run out. Accordingly, the court of appeals held that the amended complaint was prohibited by the statute of limitations, and the judgment of the trial court was reversed with instructions to dismiss the claims against Dr. Branson and the other defendants.

This holding has significant ramifications for plaintiffs who may improperly file an initial complaint due to a lack of understanding of court procedures or the law.  While courts may, in certain circumstances, be able to grant leniency to unsophisticated plaintiffs in order to toll the statute of limitations, under this court’s ruling, such tolling cannot occur when a plaintiff who is not an attorney attempts to file a complaint as a representative, or incorrectly files a direct claim under the wrongful death statute when only representative claims are allowed.

Dealing with statutes of limitations is a very serious issue, since it can have an irreversible impact on your claim.  If you believe you may have a time issue with your wrongful death or negligence claim, personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can assist you in evaluating whether the statute of limitations has run, or if it can be tolled. For more information on seeking redress and compensation for your injuries, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Am I Eligible to File a Personal Injury Claim?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 10, 2016.

Managing Parallel Criminal and Civil Proceedings for Personal Injury Claims, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 24, 2016

Personal Injury Claims Resulting From Home Construction Defects – Who is Liable?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 18, 2015