Statute Interpretation Conflict Settled

Mar 19, 2018 | Featured, News

By: Thomas Hickey

In a recent decision, Spires v. Simpson et al, No. E2015-00697-SC-R11-CV, the Tennessee Supreme Court addressed claimed prohibitions in two (2) statutes relied upon by lower courts to preclude and/or limit a spouse who abandoned his wife and child from serving as the party plaintiff in a wrongful death action on behalf of the abandoned wife and child as well as receiving the proceeds received from that lawsuit.

The decedent’s wife in Spires was killed as a result of an automobile accident in October 2010.  The plaintiff was married to the decedent at the time of her death but had abandoned her and their minor child more than a year before and had provided no support for the minor child.  In addition, the plaintiff had significant child support arrearages for four (4) other children.  Those children were not related to the decedent spouse.  The defendant, through its liability carrier, tendered policy limits; however, the issues in the case were who was entitled to recover the proceeds as well as who was the proper party plaintiff as opposed to the value to be paid.

Although the plaintiff, as the surviving spouse, appeared to have priority to bring the lawsuit because he was married to the decedent at the time of her death, he was challenged by his minor child’s maternal grandmother and maternal uncle.  The maternal uncle ultimately adopted the minor child with the plaintiff’s parental rights being terminated.  The challenge to the plaintiff as the representative party in the lawsuit was based on two (2) statutes, Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(b) and Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-105(b).

The trial court held that plaintiff was disqualified from serving as the party plaintiff and recovering any part of the settlement proceeds because he (1) never contributed to the support of the minor child with the decedent and (2) had substantial arrearages based on court-ordered child support for his children not related to the decedent.  The Court of Appeals reversed in part and affirmed in part.

The Court of Appeals held that plaintiff was not statutorily precluded from commencing and maintaining the wrongful death action but he was precluded from recovering any proceeds from it until his child support obligations are satisfied.  Interestingly the Court of Appeals further held that plaintiff could receive no proceeds from the wrongful death lawsuit and that his, recovery be paid toward his child support obligations for the children unrelated to the decedent.  The Court of Appeals relied on the terms and conditions set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(b) and Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-105(b). The Supreme Court granted permission to appeal.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and in so doing held that the prohibitions relied on by the Court of Appeals in Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(b) and Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-105(b) is applicable only to cases in which the “parent” who seeks to recover in a wrongful death lawsuit is the parent of the “decedent child” and the child support arrearage is owed for the support of that “decedent child.”

In Spires, there was no court-ordered child support for the plaintiff for the child he had with his decedent spouse and of course, the wrongful death case was not filed on behalf of a “decedent child.”  Therefore, neither of the referenced statutes is applicable to the facts of the case.

Although clearly an unpopular plaintiff based on his stipulated child support arrearages, termination of parental rights, and claims of abandonment, the plaintiff as surviving spouse was the proper party to file and pursue the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of his wife and recover for the benefit of not only himself but also the minor child of his decedent spouse.

Thomas Hickey represents individuals, businesses, and insurance companies in a variety of civil matters in the Chattanooga office.

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