Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Wrongful Death Statute

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.

During discovery, the parties learned that Mr. H. and Mrs. H. in fact had two daughters, and the defendants renewed their argument that Mr. H.’s complaint for personal damages was invalid. In the meantime, Mr. H. amended his complaint to add a claim as personal representative of the estate and hired a lawyer. The trial court again denied the defendant’s motions, finding that Mr. H.’s amended complaint was proper and his original complaint was partially proper.

The defendants appealed, and the Court of Appeals agreed with their argument. It held that Tennessee’s statute did not provide for personal claims but only for claims in a representative capacity. Since claims in a representative capacity require an attorney, and Mr. H. did not have one when he filed his original complaint, his complaint should have been dismissed. The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted Mr. H.’s appeal.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court turned to the plain language of Tennessee’s wrongful death statute. It noted that Tennessee’s statute has developed as a hybrid between survival statutes, which only permit claims in a representative capacity, and wrongful death statutes, which also permit claims in a personal capacity. Under the statute, while the decedent’s claims survive his or her death and pass to the immediate relatives, they are brought as the personal claims of the immediate relatives, rather than as the claims of the estate. While a personal representative of the estate can bring such claims, he or she does so for the benefit of the immediate relatives, rather than the benefit of the estate. Moreover, the statute also allows immediate relatives to recover their own damages, in addition to any damages claim the decedent may have.

Reviewing this background and the exact language of the statute, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the statute should be interpreted as transferring the decedent’s right of action to the spouse or next of kin. Thus, a spouse like Mr. H. does not bring claims on behalf of Mrs. H.; instead, he brings his own claims that passed to him after Mrs. H. died, as well as any additional personal claims he might have for damages. Since this is the case, the Supreme Court held that there is no requirement that the claims be filed by a personal representative of the estate, or by an attorney. Therefore, Mr. H.’s original complaint was proper, and the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that his complaint should not have been dismissed.

This decision clarifies that immediate relatives of someone who has died as a result of another party’s negligence may bring two types of claims in court – claims for the decedent’s injuries that have been passed on to the immediate relative after death and claims for the immediate relatives’ own injuries as a result of the death. If you are considering bringing a claim based on the death of a loved one, experienced Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can help you craft a request for both types of injuries. 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 Holds Suicide Not An Intervening Cause in Wrongful Death Case, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, June 27, 2016.

Tennessee Supreme Court Reviews Wrongful Death Benefits Awarded to Severely Injured Carpenter’s Family, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 31, 2017.