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What Happens If the Defendant in My Personal Injury Case Dies Before I Can Sue?


All Tennessee personal injury cases, such as lawsuits arising from car accidents must be filed within a certain time period. This is commonly known as the statute of limitations. For most personal injury claims, the statute of limitations is one year from the date of the underlying accident. But there are a number of exceptions that allow a plaintiff to suspend (or “toll”) the statute of limitations.

Accident Victim Misses Chance in Court Due to Delayed Discovery of Defendant’s Death

One such exception applies to scenarios where the defendant has passed away. Historically, the common law in Tennessee held that when someone died before they could be sued, the plaintiff was out of luck. The personal injury claim effectively died with the defendant. But the Tennessee General Assembly replaced the common law rule with a statute that said the plaintiff could sue the personal representative of the deceased party instead. In a separate statute, the General Assembly further directed that the one-year statute of limitations can be suspended for up to six months or until a personal representative is appointed.

The plaintiff is still responsible for complying with the statute of limitations, however, and if necessary determining how long any tolling period extends. This can get complicated depending on the facts of a given case. But when it comes to these type of deadlines, Tennessee judges are quite strict.

Consider this recent decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals. This case began with a two-car accident in February 2015. The plaintiff was one of the drivers. She maintains the other driver’s negligence was responsible for the accident. Accordingly, she filed suit in Tennessee state court in February 2016, exactly one year after the accident took place.

Normally this would have complied with the statute of limitations. But as it turned out, the defendant had died about a month before the plaintiff filed her lawsuit. The plaintiff and her attorney were unaware of this fact, and due to some confusion, they did not learn about the defendant’s death until approximately July 2016.

Since no estate had been opened for the defendant, there was no personal representative to serve. The plaintiff then requested a judge appoint an “administrator ad litem” to represent the estate and receive the personal injury lawsuit. The court appointed an administrator in October 2016, and the plaintiff filed an amended an amended lawsuit shortly afterwards.

Unfortunately, the plaintiff was now in violation of the statute of limitations. As the Court of Appeals explained, the one-year clock was stopped during the six months immediately following the defendant’s death. The clock then restarted, which still gave the plaintiff about a month. And even after the belated discovery of the defendant’s death, the plaintiff still had 15 days to file an amended complaint. The mere fact there was a delay in naming an administrator for the defendant’s estate–not to mention the plaintiff’s own failure to promptly discover her adversary’s death–did not excuse a failure to meet the extended deadline.

Have You Been in a Car Accident? Call Us Today

There is nothing more frustrating than to have a legitimate personal injury claim derailed by a procedural issue. But every second counts when it comes to litigation. This is why if you have been in a car accident you should contact a qualified Knoxville personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with a lawyer today.



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