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Tennessee Supreme Court Addresses Who Is Entitled to Wrongful Death Settlement

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.

On appeal, the appellate court held that the first step was to determine whether C.H.’s son was truly an heir of D.H. through a paternity determination, which had not yet occurred. The appellate court explained that if C.H.’s son was not actually D.H.’s child, he did not have priority in wrongful death proceedings. C.H. appealed this determination as well.

The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court and held that the matter could be resolved without delving into paternity issues. This is because the Supreme Court concluded that the motion to reopen the proceedings was not actually timely. Under Tennessee law, a motion to reopen must be filed “within a reasonable time.” A motion filed more than a year after an order dismissing a case is entered is generally untimely unless there are extraordinary circumstances. Here, C.H. argued that the fact that she thought she was represented by attorneys who were pursuing a claim on behalf of her son for most of 2009 and 2010 constituted an extraordinary circumstance. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that C.H.’s failure to actually try to contact her attorney during those years undermined her arguments that she was relying on his representations.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that the circumstances were unfortunate, but it held that under the circumstances, the trial court’s decision to deny the motion was appropriate.

If you are considering bringing a claim based on the death of a loved one but are concerned that others may bring competing wrongful death claims or try to take priority over your claim, you should speak to an experienced Tennessee attorney as soon as possible.  Trial-tested wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can work with you to determine whether you have priority to assert a wrongful death claim under Tennessee law and, if so, implement a strategy to protect that claim. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Reverses Summary Judgment Based on Comparative Fault, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 13, 2017.

Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Wrongful Death Statute, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 8, 2017.

Tennessee Court Holds Suicide Not An Intervening Cause in Wrongful Death Case, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 27, 2016.

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