By: Luke Jerkins

In March 2013, two automobiles were involved in a high-speed motor vehicle accident in Sumner County, Tennessee.  The drivers of the vehicles were Charles Myres and Justin Bennett and those two are the only parties deemed to be negligent despite multiple collisions with other automobiles.  As a result of the accident, Sharon Myres (passenger in Mr. Myres vehicle and his wife) died of injuries sustained therein.  Mr. Myres, on behalf of his wife, filed a lawsuit for her wrongful death against the other driver, Mr. Bennett.  At the same time, Mrs. Myres daughter, Brittany Nelson, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Myres, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Myres employers and motor vehicle insurance policies for the wrongful death of her mother.  Mr. Myres’ employer moved to dismiss Brittany Nelson’s matter citing that Mr. Myres is the surviving spouse and was the proper party to bring the claim.  The Circuit Court agreed and dismissed Ms. Nelson’s action.  Ms. Nelson appealed this ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals who reversed the ruling of the Circuit Court citing that “Mr. Myres had an inherent conflict of interest because, due to his conduct in bringing about the accident, he would be both a defendant and a plaintiff in the wrongful death whereas Ms. Nelson’s lawsuit would fully prosecute Mrs. Myres’ cause of action”.  Mr. Myres appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee.

Tennessee has held through in its wrongful death statute that:

“the right of action that a person who dies from injuries received from another, or whose death is caused by the wrongful act, omission, or killing by another, would have against the wrong does, in case death had not ensured, shall not abate or be extinguished by the person’s death but shall pass to the person’s surviving spouse and, in case there is no surviving spouse, to the person’s next of kin.  T.C.A § 20-5-106(a).

In accordance with the above, the Supreme Court of Tennessee would be hearing an issue of first impression (one not previously ruled upon).  While Tennessee courts have previously ruled that a surviving spouse may waive their right to bring a lawsuit on behalf of their deceased spouse, the Supreme Court of Tennessee has never ruled that a surviving spouse is disqualified from bringing a wrongful death claim due to his/her own negligence.  Ms. Nelson’s attorneys turned to Georgia Law which had previously ruled that a surviving spouse could not recover for the wrongful death of his spouse if he had caused the death (e.g. Murder).  The Tennessee Supreme Court had a similar ruling wherein it ruled that a surviving spouse may not recover for intentionally causing the death of his spouse.  However, this matter stems from the negligence of Mr. Myres and not his criminal culpability.

Ms. Nelson’s attorneys also raised the fact that Mr. Myres, in his complaint, failed to name a number of parties that could be held liable for the wrongful death of Mrs. Myres including himself and his employer.  The Supreme Court reviewed relevant case law and noted that there is no “implied waiver” of a claim based on not naming indispensable parties to a lawsuit.  Instead, the Court sided with previous Tennessee Law that states the surviving spouse has complete control over the litigation when he decides to initiate the lawsuit and this cannot be waived due to lack of diligence of his claim to another.

In the end, the Supreme Court of Tennessee ruled in favor of Mr. Myres stating that he was the surviving spouse and when he initiated the lawsuit on behalf of his wife, his superior right to the claim cannot be extinguished even with lack of diligence.  The Tennessee Supreme Court also created some separation between the negligence of a spouse and the intentional killing.  While there is a waiver of a wrongful death claim for an intentional killing of a spouse, the negligence of a spouse does not reach the same threshold and will not likely result in waiver without additional circumstances.

Citing:

Brittany Noel Nelson, et. al. v. Charles W. Myres, et. al.
Tennessee Supreme Court of Tennessee
Docket No. M2015-01857-SC-R11-CV

 

Luke Jerkins focuses on Litigation (Automobile, Business and Commercial, Construction, Employment Practices, Insurance Coverage, Insurance Defense, Property and Casualty), Insurance Subrogation, Workers’ Compensation, Premises Liability and Products Liability law in the Nashville office.

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