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.