If the death of a family member was caused by the negligence of another person, a personal representative may institute a Tennessee wrongful death action on behalf of the decedent’s beneficiaries. Generally, the beneficiaries identified by statute receive the compensation obtained in a successful lawsuit. However, there are some situations in which a statutory beneficiary may not recover. In a December 27, 2017 opinion, the Supreme Court of Tennessee discussed how two statutes would apply to preclude a parent who owes child support arrearages from recovering proceeds in a wrongful death case.
In the case, the plaintiff and decedent were married and had a son in 2009. The plaintiff left both of them soon after the child was born, but the spouses never divorced. After the decedent died in 2010, the decedent’s mother was awarded custody of the child, and her brother adopted him in 2012. The adoption order terminated the plaintiff’s parental rights, based on abandonment for failure to visit or support him.
In 2010, the plaintiff filed a wrongful death action as a surviving spouse. At the time, however, the plaintiff owed child support for four other children, who were unrelated to the decedent. The decedent’s mother intervened, arguing that the plaintiff was disqualified from bringing the action and sought to replace him in the lawsuit. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff from the wrongful death case, based on Tennessee wrongful death and intestate succession statutes, and the subsequent appeals ensued.