By Jacob D. Strawn

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently denied a husband his right to bring a wrongful death suit on behalf of his deceased wife and instead, reinstated the late wife’s daughter’s wrongful death suit.

On March 23, 2012, Sharon Myres was riding in a vehicle driven by her husband, Charles Myres. Apparently, Mr. Myres’ vehicle collided with a vehicle driven by Justin Bennett. These two vehicles crossed into opposing lanes of traffic and struck two other vehicles, killing Mrs. Myres.

On May 8, 2012, Brittany Nelson, Mrs. Myres’ daughter from a previous marriage, filed a wrongful death suit, naming Mr. Myres, her stepfather, and Mr. Bennett as defendants. She alleged that both her stepfather’s and Mr. Bennett’s “felonious” actions led to her mother’s death. In response, Mr. Myres answered that his late wife’s negligence exceeded his own. Mr. Bennett answered that Mr. Myres was driving at a high rate of speed and attempted to run him off the road. Moreover, Mr. Myres was alleged to have been driving under the influence.

The following day, Mr. Myres filed his own wrongful death suit, naming Mr. Bennett as the only defendant. He also sought claims for loss of consortium and loss of services. The trial court found that Ms. Nelson could not continue with her wrongful death claim because the wrongful death statute in Tennessee only contemplated one cause of action and that her claim must yield to her step-father’s, as the surviving spouse. She appealed.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a wrongful death suit should be treated as if the deceased party brought it themselves. While the Court acknowledged that Mr. Myres had priority under the statute as the surviving spouse, it also recognized that actual rights being adjudicated were Mrs. Myres’ against the wrongdoers who caused her death. As such, the husband’s wrongful death action did not fully assert all the decedent’s potential rights; Mr. Bennett, the party upon whom Mr. Myres placed total fault, alleged comparative fault against Mr. Myres himself. Thus, the court reasoned that if his wrongful death suit went forward, Mr. Myres would be placed in an impossible situation: He would be both plaintiff and defendant. The court found that this situation would completely run aground the decedent’s cause of action for wrongful death.

Because the totality of the decedent’s rights was represented in the daughter’s suit, the court reinstated her claim. In doing so, the court eliminated Mr. Myres’ claim for wrongful death. Interestingly, Mr. Myres’ loss of consortium and loss of services claims were allowed to go forward, and the court did not rule on the issue of who would recover the potential proceeds of the suit. In effect, this ruling greatly impacts the status of “driver-”surviving spouses in the event their “passenger” spouses are killed in a motor vehicle accident. This case left unresolved the impact on any potential recovery the husband may have from the wrongful death suit that is to be prosecuted by the decedent’s daughter.

 

Jacob is an associate in Spicer Rudstrom’s Memphis office, where he focuses on insurance defense, premises liability, products liability and workers’ compensation.