TN Supreme Court Revives Wrongful Death Lawsuit
In May 2016 we discussed an unfortunate ruling by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which overturned a jury verdict. The victim’s husband had initially filed his complaint against the defendants without the assistance of a qualified personal injury attorney. Although he later obtained counsel, it was not until after the one-year statute of limitations in wrongful death cases expired. Based on this, the Court of Appeals threw out the jury’s award of $750,000, holding the husband’s initial complaint was void because he lacked the ability to act in a “representative capacity on behalf of the decedent,” i.e. his wife and her estate.
The husband appealed this ruling. The Tennessee Supreme Court has now weighed in, and in an August 30 opinion reversed the Court of Appeals. The husband’s initial decision to represent himself was not fatal to his case, the Supreme Court held, and the trial judge was right to reject the defendants’ attempt to end the lawsuit on those grounds.
Wife’s Claims “Passed To” Husband Upon Death
Wrongful death lawsuits are a special kind of personal injury claim. As the Supreme Court explained in its opinion, “Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes form a patchwork of sorts.” The basic idea is that if someone dies due to the negligence of another, the victim’s “right of action” is not “extinguished” by death but rather “shall pass” to their surviving spouse or next of kin. And while the personal representative of the victim’s estate may file a wrongful death lawsuit, it is “for the benefit of” the surviving spouse or next of kin, rather than the estate itself.
In this case, the Court of Appeals said the husband was acting in a “representative capacity” for the estate. While a person is free to represent themselves in court without an attorney, only a licensed member of the bar can represent someone else. But the Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ assertion that the husband was representing his wife or her estate. Indeed, the wrongful death law “says what it means and means what it says”–that is, that the wife’s cause of action “passed to” her husband upon her death.
That means the husband was representing himself when he filed the initial wrongful death lawsuit without an attorney, which was not illegal. More to the point, the Supreme Court said the trial judge was right to permit the husband to later amend his complaint after hiring a lawyer. These actions did not “prejudice” the defendants’ legal rights.
Get Help With Your Wrongful Death or Personal Injury Claim
None of this is to suggest that you should ever file any kind of personal injury lawsuit, especially a wrongful death claim, without an attorney. In fact, even the husband’s initial complaint was drafted by a lawyer, although for some reason it was only signed by him. Litigation is a complex matter, and tackling a wrongful death lawsuit on your own without experience is simply a bad idea.
If you need assistance from a qualified Tennessee personal injury lawyer, contact the offices of Fox Farley Willis & Burnette in Knoxville or Clinton today at (866) 862-4855.