Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

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Tennessee law provides very clear instruction and directives on who may bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of a loved one. Generally, such claims are limited to spouses or children unless neither such relationship exists. While this may seem straightforward, complicated questions can arise when individuals are in estranged relationships, separated, or no longer living together but have yet to formalize their decision through divorce. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals illustrates how this can add significant complications and even, in some cases, lead to the wrong individual being awarded wrongful death proceeds.

In this wrongful death case, R.B. was killed in an accident. Shortly thereafter her estranged husband, L.B. brought a wrongful death claim on her behalf and on behalf of the couple’s minor children. A guardian ad litem was appointed to represent the children in the proceedings. During the pendency of the claims, J.D. attempted to intervene to argue that L.B. did not have standing to bring a wrongful death claim on his wife’s behalf because he was estranged from her. J.D. stated that he was the biological father of R.B.’s children and he was the one with standing to bring a claim on her behalf. The court denied the motion and allowed L.B.’s claims to continue. J.D. appealed these rulings but while they were pending, a settlement in the wrongful death action was reached. The guardian ad litem agreed with the settlement and recommended that it be approved by the court. Under the settlement, L.B. received 40% of the proceeds and the children received the other 60%. The court approved the settlement and the funds were dispersed.

Not long after the settlement was reached, the appeals court considered J.D.’s appeal and determined that the lower court had erred and that an evidentiary hearing on L.B.’s standing needed to occur. It remanded the case for further proceedings. During the evidentiary proceedings, R.B.’s oldest child, who was no longer a minor, argued that L.B. had been estranged from R.B. and that he did not have standing. The court agreed. The court issued an order prohibiting L.B. from transferring the funds he had received, ordered an accounting of those funds and that they would be returned to the court.

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All individuals have the constitutional right to have a jury hear their claims. This means that a jury, in addition to a judge, will listen to the facts of the case and determine whether the defendant should be found liable for his or her actions, and what amount of damages, if any, should be awarded. Even in a jury trial, however, the judge plays an important role as a “13th juror” who reviews the outcome of the case and determines whether serious errors have occurred or if the jury’s findings are inconsistent with the evidence presented in the case. In this way, the judge makes sure that the jury has not completely misunderstood the facts presented to them, or reached a biased conclusion.

Where a judge believes that a jury has ruled correctly, but has failed to accurate account for the plaintiff’s damages, in light of the evidence presented, the judge has the option of additur or remittitur. Additur is the process of adding to the jury’s verdict to create an award that better reflects the facts presented in the case, while remittitur allows the judge to reduce the award for the same reason. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals looked at when additur is and is not appropriate in a jury trial.

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Under Tennessee’s wrongful death statute, when a loved one dies, there are certain family members who get priority to bring wrongful death lawsuits on the loved one’s behalf. Spouses have the primary right to bring such a claim, while children have a secondary right after spouses.  Since Tennessee legislators did not want anyone to benefit off the intentional killing of another person, any person who intentionally causes the death of a loved one cannot then bring a claim on that person’s behalf. This principle is known as the slayer statute.  While the slayer statute clearly applies to intentional harm, it is unclear whether it also applies to someone who negligently causes the death of another person. A recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision addressed this issue.

In this Tennessee wrongful death case, C.M. and J.B were involved in a road rage dispute when their vehicles crossed into incoming traffic and caused an accident. As a result of the accident, C.M.’s wife was killed. C.M. and his wife had one daughter, B.N.  Shortly after the accident, B.N. filed a wrongful death action on behalf of her mother and named both C.M. and J.B. as defendants. In the complaint, B.N. alleged that C.M. was under the influence of an intoxicant at the time of the accident and that his negligent actions disqualified him from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit himself. At the time, C.M. was in jail for vehicular homicide resulting from the accident.

C.M. later filed a wrongful death action on behalf of his wife, arguing that B.N.’s complaint should be dismissed because he had priority to file the wrongful death lawsuit as the spouse. C.M’s lawsuit named J.B. as a defendant but did not name himself. Ultimately, the trial court agreed with C.M. that he had priority and dismissed B.N.’s complaint.  B.N. appealed. On appeal, the appellate court held that C.M. had an inherent conflict of interest because he could be both the plaintiff and the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his wife, and accordingly only B.N.’s lawsuit would allow for the full prosecution of all claims C.M.’s wife, and B.N.’s mother, might have. It reversed the lower court and reinstated B.N.’s claim. C.M. then appealed.

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The Tennessee wrongful death statute permits the surviving spouse and surviving children of an individual who passes away to recover compensation on behalf of the deceased individual for injuries and pain and suffering that the deceased individual experienced prior to death. Wrongful death statutes often allow a surviving family member to sue third parties who negligently caused a loved one’s death. Subject to special exception, Tennessee’s wrongful death statute gives a strong preference to allowing a spouse or children to recover after a wrongful death, but a recent case before the Tennessee Supreme Court considered whether a husband who had essentially abandoned his wife and child should still be able to recover under the statute.

In this car accident case, C.S. and K.S. were previously married, but K.S. abandoned C.S. in April 2009, shortly after they had their child, U.S. C.S. and K.S. never divorced, but K.S. never lived with C.S. and their son again, and he did not pay any child support. In October 2010, C.S. died after an automobile accident with H.R. U.S.’s grandmother, C.O., was awarded guardianship over U.S. after C.S.’s death. In November 2010, K.S. filed a wrongful death lawsuit against H.R., alleging that H.R.’s negligence caused C.S.’s death. Shortly thereafter, C.O. sought to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit and argued that U.S. was actually the primary representative in the wrongful death lawsuit and that she should be appointed as plaintiff, rather than K.S., because she was U.S.’s guardian. C.O. argued that K.S. could not recover on C.S.’s behalf in a wrongful death claim because he had abandoned C.S. and U.S. and owed child support to four other mothers for four other children. According to C.O., Tennessee’s statute prohibiting a parent from recovering under a wrongful death statute when he owed outstanding child support prevented K.S. from being a plaintiff.

Several months later, the court conducted a hearing on the matter. Around the same time, H.R. announced that she had agreed to settle the matter for the insurance policy limits of $100,000 and would leave it up to the court to determine how that $100,000 should be distributed between U.S. and K.S. The trial court ultimately decided to grant C.O.’s motion and dismiss K.S. from the lawsuit. The court further held that U.S. was entitled to the full $100,000. K.S. appealed.

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When a loved one dies as a result of another party’s negligence, certain heirs to the decedent have priority to bring a lawsuit on the decedent’s behalf. Under Tennessee law, the surviving spouse of someone who dies has first priority to bring a lawsuit. If a surviving spouse does not exist, any children the individual has have priority as litigants. Finally, if no children exist, the parents of the person who died may sue.  While this is the order of priority under Tennessee law, it is not always followed by individuals who wish to sue on behalf of their loved ones. As with the case below, when a parent seeks to recover first, those who have priority, such as spouses or children, must be vigilant in ensuring that their legal rights are not preempted by another family member who is the first to make it to the courtroom.

In this recent Tennessee wrongful death case, D.H. was killed after being unlawfully handcuffed and detained at a family dollar store in Tennessee. Prior to his death, D.H. had fathered a child with C.H., but he was not involved in the child’s life nor had custody over the child. Instead, at the time of his death, D.H. was living with his mother, M.C. After his death, M.C. approached a local attorney to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of D.H.’s child and herself. C.H. was informed of the possible lawsuit and her child’s involvement but heard nothing further. Several months later, the attorney decided not to move forward with the lawsuit and notified M.C. It was disputed whether M.C. or the attorney notified C.H. According to C.H., she presumed that the attorney was representing her for the next two years but did not attempt to contact him.

Several months later, in November 2009, M.C. retained another attorney to bring a lawsuit for her son’s wrongful death with her as representative. M.C. did not include C.H. and D.H.’s son in this lawsuit and represented, by affidavit, that she was the sole heir of her son. In March 2010, M.C. reached a settlement with Family Dollar and signed a release of all claims. On March 31, 2010, the case was dismissed with prejudice. It was not until November 2011 that C.H. finally met with a new legal aid attorney about her son’s claim and learned about M.C.’s lawsuit. In December 2011, she filed a motion to set aside the order dismissing M.C.’s case, arguing that her son was a lawful heir of D.H. and had priority over M.C. The trial court denied the motion on the basis that it was untimely, since it had been more than a year since the order was entered, and it would not be fair to require Family Dollar to relitigate the case after it had already settled with M.C. C.H. appealed.

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In negligence actions, many different defendants may be at issue in a case. There may be an individual who caused an injury, or a company that produced a product that led to an injury, or an owner of a property that had a dangerous condition leading to an injury. Circumstances may also arise in which one party is responsible for the actions of a defendant because that defendant was acting as an agent for the party at the time of the injury. In these cases, even though the party didn’t take the action that caused the injury, it can still be held responsible for the actions of its agents.

A recent Tennessee wrongful death case illustrates this point. In this case, D.H. sued Trinity Hospital after his wife died following colon surgery. After the surgery, D.H.’s wife developed several complications, including intestinal obstruction. She was kept at the hospital for evaluation, but her condition continued to deteriorate. Nurses noticed leakage from her insertion wound and reported it to the doctors. Dr. A, a radiologist, conducted a CT scan to rule out the possibility of a bowel perforation, but he did not notice any problems. D.H.’s wife continued to worsen, and she eventually went into septic shock and died.

During litigation, D.H. finally received a copy of the CT scan after three years of efforts to obtain it. It showed clear evidence of air in D.H.’s wife’s abdomen, which was indicative of bowel perforation. Because of the time that had passed, D.H. could not add Dr. A. to his lawsuit. Instead, he sought a ruling from the court that Dr. A. was an agent of Trinity and that Trinity should be held liable for any damages he caused in order to prevent them from reaping the benefit of their failure to produce the CT scan.

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Gun ownership is an issue about which many Tennesseans feel passionately. While individuals may disagree about when and where individuals should be allowed to have guns, all agree that gun owners have a responsibility to use their guns safely. Recently, a case in the Tennessee Court of Appeals raised a novel issue in gun ownership, asking whether a gun owner owes a duty to protect an individual whom he or she knows is mentally unstable or suicidal from using his or her gun. This question potentially broadens the responsibility that gun owners have not only to themselves but also to others.

In this Tennessee wrongful death case, the personal representative of C.C. brought claims against J.W. after C.C. committed suicide in 2014. C.C. was a nurse with a husband and young child when she began an affair with a doctor, J.W., at the hospital where she worked. When her husband became aware of the affair, they divorced, and the husband eventually sought full custody of their child. While going through these proceedings, C.C. became increasingly depressed and upset and eventually sought the help of a psychiatrist. She was prescribed medication but continued to struggle with depression. In January 2014, C.C. attempted suicide for the first time by overdosing on her medications and mixing them with alcohol. She was transported to a local hospital, and J.W. was alerted. Eventually she was released into J.W.’s custody with instructions to receive further mental health care. Over the following weeks, C.C. learned that her ex-husband had been granted full custody of their child. She and J.W. began to disagree and temporarily separated. Several weeks later, they reconciled.

At around that time, J.W. inherited a gun and ammunition from a family member. While C.C. was visiting J.W.’s home one night, J.W. showed her the pistol and where it was located. J.W. and C.C. continued to have an on and off relationship. While C.C. also continued to see her therapist, she never told him about the attempted suicide, and J.W. did not share this information either. As a result, C.C. was not prescribed any further medication or treatment. Shortly before her suicide, C.C. and J.W. had another fight when J.W. attempted to break off the relationship. While J.W. was away on business, C.C. asked if she could stay at his home while she looked for new housing. J.W. agreed. While in his home, C.C. shot herself with the pistol that J.W. had shown her. By the time he returned home, C.C. was dead. The personal representative of C.C.’s estate sued J.W. for negligence, arguing that J.W. should have kept and stored his gun in a safe manner where it was not accessible to C.C. The representative further argued that J.W. knew of C.C.’s precarious mental state and owed a duty to protect her from the possibility that she might harm herself.

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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.

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In negligence cases, defendants can only be held liable for damages that result from actions that they have directly caused. For example, if a plaintiff is involved in an accident during a thunderstorm, she may be able to sue the other driver for injuries that she sustained during the car accident. However, if she is also struck by lightning from the thunderstorm, she cannot seek damages for any damages related to those injuries, since they were caused by an independent intervening event, the lightning strike. While the intervening cause is clearly separate and distinct from a driver’s negligence in that example, separating the two is not always so easy. In a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the court considered whether the suicide of a young woman was an independent cause of the daughter’s and her family’s injuries, or a foreseeable result of a police department’s failure to take action.

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When a party is injured by the negligence of another party, that individual typically has claims for the pain and suffering and other damages that they experienced. Additionally, in some states, like Tennessee, those who knew the party, were closely related to the person injured, or witnessed the injury that occurred may also have their own claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED). Since NIED claims could potentially open a defendant up to many claims by many different parties, they are typically construed quite narrowly and require plaintiffs to show that they were immediately affected by an “injury producing event.” In a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the court considered whether an injury producing event had to occur instantly or could be the product of prolonged negligence over time.

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