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Tennessee Supreme Court Holds That Husband’s Wrongful Death Claim in Medical Malpractice Complaint Saved Statute of Limitations

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An act of medical malpractice in Knoxville, Maryville, or another region of east Tennessee can cause devastating injuries and even a wrongful death. Unfortunately, Tennessee has one of the shortest statutes of limitations in the nation, giving grieving families just one year in which to assert a claim or else have their right to recover money damages barred by the statute of limitations.

While contacting a Tennessee wrongful death attorney may be a difficult and emotionally taxing step in recovering from the death of a family member, it is vitally important that this be done as soon as possible so that the attorney can have adequate time to investigate the matter, prepare the paperwork for the claim, and file the necessary documents before the statute of limitations runs.

Those who wait too long to hire an attorney may find themselves unable to find a qualified legal professional willing to put their name and reputation on the line when too little time is left to properly research a claim. This was exactly what happened to a widower who lost his wife to an alleged act of medical negligence. He had no choice but to file the claim pro se (although he was able to retain an attorney later). Unfortunately, the family spent the next 12 years arguing about whether this action complied with the statute of limitations.

Facts of the Case

A recent appellate case arose from an alleged act of medical malpractice in Houston County, Tennessee, in September 2004. The victim died as a result of her injuries. One year short of the day the woman was admitted to the defendant hospital and underwent surgery performed by the defendant doctor, her husband filed a pro se wrongful death lawsuit, acting “individually and as the surviving spouse” of the victim and seeking damages on behalf of the husband only (rather than the woman’s estate or other heirs).

In November 2005, the defendants filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the husband was not permitted to file his lawsuit pro se because it was filed in a representative capacity and the husband was not an attorney. Thereafter, the husband formally retained an attorney, filed an amended complaint with the attorney’s signature, and filed an opposition to the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The circuit court denied the defendants’ motions, as well as their motions for summary judgment on similar grounds filed later after it was discovered that the victim had two adult daughters.

Thereafter, the original plaintiff died, and one of the decedent’s daughters was substituted as the plaintiff. A jury trial resulted in a verdict of $750,000 in the plaintiff’s favor. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the defendants should have been granted summary judgment based on the expiration of the statute of limitations. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court of Tennessee at Nashville reversed the decision of the intermediate court of appeals, holding that, under the particular facts presented by the case, the initial pro se complaint filed by the malpractice victim’s husband was not void ab initio. Instead, the husband’s claim was sufficient to comply with the statute of limitations, and the trial court correctly ruled that the amended complaint filed later related back to the date of the initial complaint. The court then remanded the case to the court of appeals for a consideration of certain additional issues that the plaintiff preserved for appeal but were not considered by the intermediate court in its opinion.

According to the Supreme Court, under the plain language of Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes, the decedent’s right of action passed to the surviving spouse upon the decedent’s death. The surviving spouse was not acting as a legal representative of the decedent in filing the wrongful death action but, instead, to a large extent on his own behalf and for his own benefit, pursuant to his right of self-representation.

Contact an Experienced Knoxville Wrongful Death Attorney

If you have lost a loved one due to another party’s negligence, do not wait another minute to talk to a lawyer about the possibility of filing a lawsuit. As this case illustrates, waiting until the last minute can cause a multitude of problems. Even though the statute of limitations issue was eventually resolved in the plaintiff’s favor, things would have been much simpler had the decedent’s husband not waited until the eleventh hour to take action. At the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., seasoned Knoxville wrongful death attorney Mark Hartsoe is available to discuss your loved one’s case. Call us at 865-524-5657 for a free, no-obligation consultation.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Summary Judgment on Parents’ Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim Following Child’s Death from Alleged Medical Malpractice

Tennessee Appellate Court Identifies Proper Family Member to Bring Wrongful Death Case Following Mother’s Death in Car Accident