Tennessee Court of Appeals Rules on Personal Injury Award in Divorce Settlement

The Tennessee Court of Appeals recently took a rather in-depth look at the matter of how to allocate a personal injury settlement award during a divorce.

In the case, Metzinger v. Metzinger, Tenn. Ct. App. (2014), the husband was injured when an intoxicated driver ran over him while he stood in a parking lot. Due to the accident, the husband received a $66,000 settlement for his personal injury. Subsequent to the accident, the wife filed for divorce. The couple agreed to a division of property, debts, and a parenting plan for their children. Therefore, the trial focused on the matter of the personal injury award.

At trial, the husband and wife were the sole witnesses. The husband testified that the personal injury award did not make a delineation regarding a differentiation for lost wages, medical expenses, or pain and suffering. He stated that, outside the settlement, except for one bill totaling $3,400, all of his medical bills were paid.

The husband testified to the extent of his injuries, including a statement that his leg was broken in half, requiring the surgical insertion of a metal rod. He further testified that he was in excruciating pain, which he treated with pain medication, and that because of the injury he was unable to work for many months. He also estimated that the award may have been some 80% for his pain and suffering, with the remainder being attributable to lost wages and the like. The trial court found that some of the expenditures that had been made were legitimate, but that the remaining amount was marital property, and as such the wife was entitled to half of that amount.

On appeal, after recounting the history and facts of the case, the court went through a detailed discussion of the husband’s tax returns and direct deposit information in order to ascertain his typical payments pre- versus post-injury and recovery. They also discussed the husband’s various work-related expenditures, including for gasoline, rebuilding his truck’s engine, and so on. They also attempted to pick apart how the $66,000 was supposed to be allocated.

In the end, the court sided with the husband’s argument that only a small proportion of the settlement could properly be classified as marital property. An award for personal injury, it affirmed,  “can be classified as marital property only insofar as such recovery represents “wages lost during the marriage, reimbursement for medical bills incurred and paid with marital property, and property damage to marital property.” Tenn. Code Ann. 36-4-121(b)(1)(C).

Regarding what amount was specifically marital property, the court arrived at a $10,000 award as properly classifiable as marital property. However, since the trial court deducted an amount greater than that, $13,400.00, as “legitimate expense[s] of the marriage,” there was no amount of marital property remaining to award to the wife. Therefore, the trial court’s finding of $26,300.00 was invalid, and the court reversed the decision.

As the court referenced, in Tennessee, personal injury awards are only properly considered marital property in the following regards:

  • Wages lost during the marriage;
  • Reimbursement for medical bills, incurred with and paid for with marital property; and
  • Property damage to the marital property.

Divorce is a trying and emotional experience for a family, especially if children are involved. The attorneys at Martin, Heller, Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC have extensive experience in all aspects of family law, from complex divorces in which the marital estate contains substantial assets to simple matters in which the parties only need an attorney to prepare divorce paperwork. If you or a loved one needs assistance in a family law matter, contact us at (615) 800-7096 or through this website to schedule an initial consultation.

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