Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Right of Uninvolved Parent to Recover Under Wrongful Death Statute

The Tennessee wrongful death statute permits the surviving spouse and surviving children of an individual who passes away to recover compensation on behalf of the deceased individual for injuries and pain and suffering that the deceased individual experienced prior to death. Wrongful death statutes often allow a surviving family member to sue third parties who negligently caused a loved one’s death. Subject to special exception, Tennessee’s wrongful death statute gives a strong preference to allowing a spouse or children to recover after a wrongful death, but a recent case before the Tennessee Supreme Court considered whether a husband who had essentially abandoned his wife and child should still be able to recover under the statute.

In this car accident case, C.S. and K.S. were previously married, but K.S. abandoned C.S. in April 2009, shortly after they had their child, U.S. C.S. and K.S. never divorced, but K.S. never lived with C.S. and their son again, and he did not pay any child support. In October 2010, C.S. died after an automobile accident with H.R. U.S.’s grandmother, C.O., was awarded guardianship over U.S. after C.S.’s death. In November 2010, K.S. filed a wrongful death lawsuit against H.R., alleging that H.R.’s negligence caused C.S.’s death. Shortly thereafter, C.O. sought to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit and argued that U.S. was actually the primary representative in the wrongful death lawsuit and that she should be appointed as plaintiff, rather than K.S., because she was U.S.’s guardian. C.O. argued that K.S. could not recover on C.S.’s behalf in a wrongful death claim because he had abandoned C.S. and U.S. and owed child support to four other mothers for four other children. According to C.O., Tennessee’s statute prohibiting a parent from recovering under a wrongful death statute when he owed outstanding child support prevented K.S. from being a plaintiff.

Several months later, the court conducted a hearing on the matter. Around the same time, H.R. announced that she had agreed to settle the matter for the insurance policy limits of $100,000 and would leave it up to the court to determine how that $100,000 should be distributed between U.S. and K.S. The trial court ultimately decided to grant C.O.’s motion and dismiss K.S. from the lawsuit. The court further held that U.S. was entitled to the full $100,000. K.S. appealed.

On appeal, the court of appeals reversed the trial court. It held that Tennessee’s statute prohibited a surviving spouse from recovering any proceeds in a wrongful death action until child support was paid off, but it did not prevent the surviving spouse from being a plaintiff in a wrongful death action. The appeals court then required that K.S. use the money received from the lawsuit to pay off his child support obligations. C.O. then appealed.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court reviewed the issue as primarily a question of statutory interpretation of Tennessee’s statute prohibiting a surviving spouse with outstanding child support obligations from recovering. C.O. argued that the statute should be interpreted as preventing any parent with child support obligations, even those unrelated to the decedent, from recovering in a wrongful death lawsuit. K.S. argued that the statute only prevented a parent who owed child support to the decedent from recovering.

The Supreme Court first determined that under Tennessee’s wrongful death statute, K.S. did have the right to bring a wrongful death lawsuit as a surviving spouse but was required to share the proceeds of that lawsuit with U.S. because they were both beneficiaries of the decedent. The Supreme Court then concluded that in light of the overall wrongful death statute and the legislative history behind the statute, Tennessee clearly intended for a surviving spouse to only be prohibited from recovering under a wrongful death lawsuit when he or she owed child support obligations to the decedent. The Supreme Court reasoned that it would be unfair for the surviving spouse to refuse to support the decedent during life but then benefit from the decedent after their death.

Here, since K.S. did not owe child support to C.S. for U.S. at the time of her death, the Tennessee statutes did not prevent him from recovering in a wrongful death action on her behalf. However, the Supreme Court also confirmed that those proceeds had to be split with U.S. as a fellow beneficiary in the case. The Supreme Court then remanded for further consideration by the lower courts.

This decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court clarifies that surviving spouses really have priority when bringing wrongful death claims and that courts will give deference to their claims except under the most exceptional of circumstances. However, surviving spouses should not forget that the proceeds they recover will have to be shared with surviving children as well. If you are involved in a conflict over who can bring a claim based on the death of a loved one, experienced Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can help you determine whether a surviving spouse has priority or if other options are available. 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 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.

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