When Can A Surviving Spouse Bring a Wrongful Death Action in Tennessee?

When an individual dies as the result of another’s actions, it is common for family members and friends to want to seek justice on behalf of the individual who has been killed. In most states, including Tennessee, state statutes dictate who is entitled to bring such a claim, in order to prevent friends or distant relatives from bringing claims that rightfully belong to a family member like a child or spouse.  However, these statutes often have specific provisions that set forth when and how such wrongful death actions can be brought, as well as who can bring them. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether surviving spouses may bring wrongful death actions on behalf of a deceased family member when the spouse owed outstanding child support obligations.

In Spires v. Simpson, Ms. Spires was killed in an automobile accident in 2010.  At the time she died, she was married to her husband, Kenneth Spires, and they had one child together.  Mr. Spires filed a wrongful death action against Ms. Spires’ sister and her parents, who had been operating the vehicle that collided with Ms. Spires.  Shortly thereafter, the administrator of Ms. Spires’ estate moved to intervene and appoint herself as the guardian for Mr. and Ms. Spires’ child, as well as dismiss Mr. Spires from the lawsuit. She alleged that Mr. Spires had abandoned the child in 2009 and was statutorily disqualified from being a plaintiff because he had not paid outstanding child support amounts. The case ultimately settled, but the trial court dismissed Mr. Spires as a plaintiff, finding that he was disqualified. On appeal, he argued that he should not have been disqualified and that he was entitled to some of the settlement proceeds.

In Tennessee, the wrongful death statutes give priority to the surviving spouse as the individual with the right to bring a claim on behalf of the deceased individual and to “control the litigation.” Accordingly, the appellate court first determined that Ms. Spires’ right to bring a claim clearly passed to Mr. Spires at the time of her death because he was her spouse. The only way to eliminate Mr. Spires’ right was if he was statutorily disqualified. Otherwise, the court held that he was entitled to control the lawsuit and the proceeds, such as the settlement, deriving from it.

The court then turned to the question of child support obligations.  Under Tennessee’s statutes, individuals are prohibited from recovering from a lawsuit or inheriting money through intestate succession unless they are up to date on child support. Mr. Spires argued that this simply meant that any settlement he received must first pay off his existing obligations, but it did not prohibit him from being involved in the lawsuit.  Ms. Spires’ family members and estate administrator disagreed. The appellate court ultimately agreed with Mr. Spires, finding that while the statute prohibits recovery by an individual who has outstanding child support, it does not prohibit an individual from commencing litigation.  Instead, it only requires that the individual use his proceeds from the litigation to first pay off child support payments before retaining any money for himself. Here, the court held, Mr. Spires would be required to use his portion of the settlement to first pay off his existing child support obligations to his child.

If you are a surviving spouse or child of a family member who was killed in an accident, you may have the right to bring a claim on behalf of your loved one in Tennessee. An experienced wrongful death attorney like Eric Beasley can help you determine whether Tennessee’s wrongful death statute allows for your claim and, if so, what you must do.  Mr. Beasley has assisted personal injury victims throughout Tennessee in bringing civil claims and is available to answer your questions. For more information, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tolling the Statute of Limitations in Tennessee Wrongful Death Cases, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 4, 2016.

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.


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