Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law

Court Tosses Jury Verdict Against Hospital Over Widower’s Mistake

A personal injury lawsuit is not a simple matter. It can take years to assemble a case, present it to a jury, and deal with any appeals. Do not assume you can handle all of this on your own. Especially when you are coping with the wrongful death of a family member, hiring an experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer is an essential step in holding the negligent parties responsible.

You Can Represent Yourself, But Not Your Deceased Spouse

Rushing to court without a qualified wrongful death attorney can prove costly. Consider a recent case from right here in Tennessee. In 2004, a woman underwent colon surgery at a hospital in Houston County. There were post-surgery complications that required a transfer to another hospital in Nashville. Sadly, the woman went into cardiac arrest during a second surgery and died.

Just short of one year later, the deceased woman’s surviving spouse filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital and surgeon that performed the first surgery. The husband did not hire a personal injury lawyer initially. He filed the complaint himself, even though he was not an attorney licensed to practice law in Tennessee. He did retain a lawyer several months into the litigation.

The defendants argued the husband had no legal authority to file a wrongful death lawsuit without an attorney. And since he did not retain counsel until after the one-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims in Tennessee had expired, they asked the trial judge to dismiss the case. The judge declined to do so and the case proceeded to a jury trial.

The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the husband. The jury determined the hospital was 40 percent responsible for the wife’s death and the surgeon 50 percent. (A second doctor who was not named as a defendant was deemed responsible for the other 10 percent.) The jury subsequently awarded $750,000 in damages.

The hospital appealed. It renewed its claim that the husband failed to file a valid lawsuit before the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations. Unlike the trial judge, the Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with the hospital on this point. The appeals court threw out the judgment against the hospital—the surgeon did not appeal—based on the husband’s failure to follow the law to the letter.

As the Court of Appeals explained, while a person can always represent himself in court, he cannot represent someone else unless he is an attorney admitted to the Tennessee bar. In the context of a wrongful death lawsuit, the party entitled to sue is not the surviving spouse, but rather the deceased spouse. In other words, the husband did not have an “individual claim” against the hospital. He could only “assert the cause of action in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent.” And as a non-attorney, the husband could not represent his wife.

Since the husband’s initial complaint was not brought by a licensed attorney, the Court of Appeals said it was a “nullity,” as if the case never happened. Even though the husband later refiled his lawsuit after hiring a lawyer, it was too late at that point.

Get Help from a Clinton Wrongful Death Attorney

The above case illustrates the terrible consequences of what can happen when you fail to seek timely advice from a qualified Tennessee wrongful death lawyer. A hospital found liable for a woman’s death by a jury was effectively let off on a technicality. Do not let something similar happen to you. If you or a family member have been injured due to medical negligence, contact the offices of Fox & Farley, Attorneys at Law, in Knoxville or Clinton today.

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