Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Negligent Husband Has Priority For Wrongful Death Claim

Under Tennessee’s wrongful death statute, when a loved one dies, there are certain family members who get priority to bring wrongful death lawsuits on the loved one’s behalf. Spouses have the primary right to bring such a claim, while children have a secondary right after spouses.  Since Tennessee legislators did not want anyone to benefit off the intentional killing of another person, any person who intentionally causes the death of a loved one cannot then bring a claim on that person’s behalf. This principle is known as the slayer statute.  While the slayer statute clearly applies to intentional harm, it is unclear whether it also applies to someone who negligently causes the death of another person. A recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision addressed this issue.

In this Tennessee wrongful death case, C.M. and J.B were involved in a road rage dispute when their vehicles crossed into incoming traffic and caused an accident. As a result of the accident, C.M.’s wife was killed. C.M. and his wife had one daughter, B.N.  Shortly after the accident, B.N. filed a wrongful death action on behalf of her mother and named both C.M. and J.B. as defendants. In the complaint, B.N. alleged that C.M. was under the influence of an intoxicant at the time of the accident and that his negligent actions disqualified him from bringing a wrongful death lawsuit himself. At the time, C.M. was in jail for vehicular homicide resulting from the accident.

C.M. later filed a wrongful death action on behalf of his wife, arguing that B.N.’s complaint should be dismissed because he had priority to file the wrongful death lawsuit as the spouse. C.M’s lawsuit named J.B. as a defendant but did not name himself. Ultimately, the trial court agreed with C.M. that he had priority and dismissed B.N.’s complaint.  B.N. appealed. On appeal, the appellate court held that C.M. had an inherent conflict of interest because he could be both the plaintiff and the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his wife, and accordingly only B.N.’s lawsuit would allow for the full prosecution of all claims C.M.’s wife, and B.N.’s mother, might have. It reversed the lower court and reinstated B.N.’s claim. C.M. then appealed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court turned to the language of Tennessee’s wrongful death statute as a first step in resolving this case. It noted that the statute gave clear first priority to a spouse to bring a wrongful death lawsuit, and nothing within the statute limited this priority to cases in which the surviving spouse was not involved in the death or not negligent. The Supreme Court then went on to note that the legislature had provided for certain exceptions in other laws, such as a statute prohibiting a parent from recovering on behalf of a child he or she has abandoned, and the slayer statute, which prohibits recovery when an intentional killing has occurred. In light of these statutes, the Supreme Court noted that the legislature appeared able to prevent a surviving spouse from having priority in a wrongful death action when it wanted to do so, and it had not done so for negligent conduct.

The Supreme Court noted the difficult and somewhat absurd result for B.N. and C.M. because C.M. was given priority to bring a claim that would allow him to avoid liability for his own conduct. However, the Supreme Court held that this was an issue for the legislature to resolve by enacting new legislation to carve out an additional exception to the wrongful death statute, rather than for the Supreme Court to create an exception on its own. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and reinstated the trial court decision that C.M. had priority to bring the wrongful death claim and that B.N.’s claim should be dismissed.

This case reached a difficult outcome and one that some individuals will feel is unfair and incentivizes bad behavior. The Supreme Court does not appear to entirely disagree with these opinions, but it believes that the change in policy must come from the legislature, rather than the courts. If you are considering bringing a wrongful death claim and are wondering whether you have priority to bring the claim, experienced Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can help you determine where you fall in the priority order. 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 Supreme Court Upholds Right of Uninvolved Parent to Recover Under Wrongful Death Statute, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 10, 2018.

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

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