Tennessee Supreme Court Considers Whether Estranged Husband is Proper Party to Bring Wrongful Death Claim

Legal News Gavel

When someone passes away due to another party’s negligence, it may be possible for those left behind to file a Tennessee wrongful death lawsuit. However, not just anyone can file such a claim.

Only those allowed by the statutory scheme of the state in which the decedent was killed have the right to seek compensation through a wrongful death claim. Sometimes, disputes can arise as to who exactly is the proper person to bring the claim. It is up to the courts to ultimately make that decision.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently decided by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the plaintiff was a man whose wife died in October 2010 due to the alleged negligence of the defendant teenage driver. The plaintiff and the decedent had one child together, but the plaintiff had other children for whom he owed back child support. The plaintiff abandoned the decedent and their child shortly after the child was born in March 2009; he never returned to the marital home, and he made no financial contributions to his wife or their child.

The plaintiff filed a wrongful death lawsuit both in his individual capacity and as representative of the decedent and their minor child in November 2010. Thereafter, the plaintiff’s parental rights were terminated, and the child was adopted by his maternal uncle in 2012. The uncle (along with the child’s maternal grandmother, who was granted temporary custody of the child after the decedent’s death) sought to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit.

The trial court substituted the uncle as an intervening party and dismissed the plaintiff from the lawsuit, holding that the plaintiff was prevented from recovering wrongful death proceeds due to his child support arrearages. The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiff was not disqualified from filing the wrongful death action but that his half of the settlement could go to partially satisfy his back child support obligation to his other children (with the other half going to the child of the plaintiff and the decedent).

Resolution of the State’s Highest Court

The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed and vacated in part, deeming that the outcome of the case hinged on the clarification of whether two particular statutes applied. According to the court, the prohibitions set forth in Tennessee Code Annotated §§ 20-5-107(b) and 31-2-105(b) applied only in cases in which a “parent” who sought to recover damages in a wrongful death lawsuit was the parent of a deceased child, and that parent’s child support arrearage was owed for the support of that particular child. Since neither statute was applicable here, the lower courts’ decisions were reversed insofar as they applied those statutes to the case.

The court went on to affirm the court of appeals’ holding to the effect that the newly enacted wrongful death statutes regarding a surviving spouse’s waiver based on the abandonment of a decedent spouse could not be applied retroactively. In so holding, the court noted that its holding did not preclude the mothers of the plaintiff’s other children from using “other legal means” to reach any proceeds that he ultimately recovered from the wrongful death lawsuit at bar to collect outstanding child support.

If You Have Questions About an East Tennessee Wrongful Death Case

While every lawsuit brings its own set of issues and challenges, wrongful death cases can be particularly problematic – especially in complex family situations. Seasoned Knoxville wrongful death attorney Mark Hartsoe has handled many wrongful death claims over the years, and he is prepared to assist your family as you pursue fair compensation for the loss of your loved one. To schedule a free consultation, call us at 865-524-5657 today. You should be mindful that the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims is fairly short in Tennessee, so you should speak to an attorney as soon as you can so that the required paperwork can be filed in court.

Related Blog Posts:

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

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

Contact Information