Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

After a loved one has died, speaking to an attorney about your legal recourse can be difficult.  Although there are deadlines for filing a Tennessee personal injury or wrongful death action, in some cases, you may be able to proceed with your claim despite the time that has passed.  In an August 30, 2017 case, the Supreme Court of Tennessee explained that a wrongful death action is the right of the surviving spouse, rather than the decedent.  The holding allowed the surviving spouse to bring a wrongful death action, even though his amended complaint was filed after the expiration of the limitations period.glasses

The husband of the decedent filed a pro se wrongful death action, without legal representation, against the hospital and doctors who treated his wife.  He filed the lawsuit in court shortly before the one-year statute of limitations expired.  After the statute of limitations period had expired, the husband hired a personal injury lawyer to represent him, and his lawyer filed an amended complaint.  The defendants in the case argued that the amended complaint was not effective as of the date of the husband’s original complaint, and therefore, his case should be dismissed as time-barred by the statute of limitations.  The defendants alleged that the husband’s pro se complaint was filed in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and the other statutory beneficiaries, their two daughters.

In Tennessee, a person who is not an attorney may represent himself in court on his own behalf, but he cannot litigate on behalf of another person or entity.  On appeal, the primary issue was whether, under Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes, the husband’s wrongful death case was his own case, brought pursuant to his right to self-representation, or whether it was brought in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent or the statutory beneficiaries.  The Supreme Court of Tennessee first observed that a plain reading of Tennessee’s wrongful death statute provides that the decedent’s right of action passes to the surviving spouse upon the decedent’s death.  As a result, when the surviving spouse files a wrongful death action, he is not acting for the decedent or as a legal representative of the decedent.  Instead, the surviving spouse may file a wrongful death action for the benefit of himself and other beneficiaries.

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee issued an opinion on June 23, 2017 in favor of a plaintiff, reversing a lower court’s decision in a wrongful death case.  The plaintiff in the case alleged that the county emergency communications district and the city police department refused to send help when the plaintiff called to report that her daughter was making suicidal threats and that, as a result, her daughter committed suicide later the same night. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the ground that the decedent’s suicide constituted an intervening, superseding cause, and the plaintiff appealed.police car

To prove a claim for negligence in Tennessee, a plaintiff must demonstrate:  (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care that amounted to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) cause in fact; and (5) proximate cause. Proximate cause requires proof that the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm and that the harm was reasonably foreseeable. The defendants in the case argued that they should be relieved of liability under the doctrine of independent intervening cause, since the decedent’s suicide could not have reasonably been foreseen.

The appeals court explained that foreseeability is key in determining whether the doctrine applies, since no one is expected to protect against harms from events that cannot be reasonably anticipated or foreseen. The court noted evidence that the plaintiff had alerted the defendants that her daughter was threatening suicide and that both the emergency communications district and the city police department refused to send help. Under these circumstances, the court found that a jury could reasonably conclude that it was foreseeable that the plaintiff’s daughter would follow through with her threats to commit suicide. Accordingly, the court held that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on the basis that the decedent’s suicide was a superseding intervening cause.

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In a recent case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee examined whether or not a plaintiff’s injuries were reasonably foreseeable in order to establish premises liability in a wrongful death claim. In Singletary v. Gatlinburlier, Inc. (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2016), a customer fainted and fell into an antique glass display case while visiting a retail store in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The glass in the display case shattered, piercing her chest and tragically causing her death. Her husband sued the retail store and the mall in which it operated for negligence. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the injuries were not reasonably foreseeable.broken-glass-1569217-639x425

To prevail on a premises liability claim based upon negligence, a plaintiff must establish:  (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant that was below the standard of care, amounting to a breach of a duty; (3) an injury or loss; and (4) actual and proximate causation. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur permits an inference that the defendant was negligent in the absence of an explanation from the defendant, as a result of the circumstances surrounding an accident or injury. Although a plaintiff relying on the doctrine benefits from an inference that the defendant breached its duty, the plaintiff must still establish the elements of duty, injury, and causation.

In Singletary, the defendants provided evidence that the antique display case at issue was about 30 years old at that time, and it had withstood collisions from baby carriages, children leaning against and pushing on it, and other substantial impacts. The defendants also testified that the glass was cleaned regularly and did not appear to be fragile or insubstantial, and there was no expectation that the glass would break. In addition, the defendants argued that nothing about the condition of the store caused the victim to fall.

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In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee addressed the issue of whether the pro se complaint filed by the decedent’s surviving spouse tolled the statute of limitations in a medical malpractice and wrongful death action. In Beard v. Branson (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 31, 2016), the decedent suffered complications after undergoing colon surgery. She was transferred by helicopter to a medical center in Nashville, where it was determined she was in septic shock. While undergoing emergency surgery, the decedent went into cardiac arrest and died. The decedent’s husband filed a pro se complaint against the defendants, asserting medical malpractice and requesting damages for the decedent’s pain and suffering, economic loss, and other damages.medical-1240480-639x910

The defendants filed motions to dismiss the wrongful death action on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired, arguing that the pro se complaint filed by the decedent’s husband was nullified because he was attempting to assert the decedent’s claims in a representative capacity. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that Tennessee’s wrongful death statute authorized the surviving spouse to maintain an action on behalf of himself. After a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding damages of $750,000.

On appeal, the court examined Tennessee’s wrongful death statute to determine whether the petition was timely filed. The court determined that the plain language of the statute established that the only cause of action in a wrongful death suit is that of the decedent against the wrongdoer. The court then concluded that, despite the fact that they may recover damages for individual losses, neither the decedent’s husband nor her children had their own individual claims to assert in the case. Therefore, the decedent’s survivors could only assert a cause of action in a representative capacity.

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In a newly published opinion, Hussey v. Woods, the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed the roles of the probate court and the circuit court in determining paternity for purposes of the Tennessee wrongful death statute. The procedural history of the case is lengthy, beginning with the death of the purported father after he was allegedly detained and assaulted by an employee of Family Dollar. The decedent’s mother subsequently brought a wrongful death claim against Family Dollar, which was settled out of court. Twenty months after the settlement, the appellant filed a Rule 60.02 motion to set aside the settlement, contending that her minor child was the son and lawful beneficiary of the deceased, and as a result he had priority over the deceased’s mother, pursuant to the Tennessee wrongful death statute. The deceased’s mother challenged the paternity of the child and requested DNA testing, arguing that, although the deceased had filed a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity in Mississippi, he was in prison at the time the child was conceived.law-order-1240301-640x480

The circuit court ordered that the Rule 60.02 motion regarding the wrongful death settlement be held in abeyance pending the determination and priority of heirs by the probate court, and that the parties should agree to a DNA test (which the appellant repeatedly refused). The probate court ultimately accepted the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity without a DNA test, ruling that the appellant’s child was the only heir of the deceased. The matter returned to the circuit court, which denied the appellant’s motion to set aside the order of dismissal. The appellant appealed the circuit court’s decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

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electric towerThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit handed down a decision this month that clarified the meaning behind Tennessee’s definition of unsound mind for the purposes of tolling the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury and wrongful death cases.

The case, Johnson v. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div., No. 14-5484 (6th Cir. 2015), dealt with an individual, J. Dean Johnson (herein referred to collectively with relatives who brought the suit as “plaintiff”), who was unsuccessful in turning on the utilities in his home, and as a result died of a heatstroke when the temperature in his apartment reached 93.2 degrees.

The plaintiff attempted to secure utility services from Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW), but he was unsuccessful because he lacked a state issued photo identification card. He lacked a birth certificate, was illiterate, and had extensive intellectual disabilities, requiring him to rely on other people to help him with many tasks, including transportation to and from his work.

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