Tennessee Supreme Court Holds that Wrongful Death Claim Passes to Surviving Spouse

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.

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.

In reviewing the evidence of record, the Supreme Court of Tennessee found that in filing the pro se complaint, the husband was acting primarily on his own behalf and for his own benefit, pursuant to his right of self-representation.  The court also concluded that he was not acting on behalf of the other beneficiaries.  Accordingly, the court held that his initial pro se complaint was valid and acted to toll the statute of limitations.  The court, therefore, allowed the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the husband’s initial pro se complaint.  In so ruling, the jury’s subsequent verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and the award of damages was upheld.

MHPS is an established Nashville law firm representing plaintiffs in personal injury and negligence cases.  Our accident attorneys can handle premises liability claims, medical malpractice actions, wrongful death cases, as well as estate and family law matters.  To make an appointment with an experienced injury lawyer at MHPS, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.

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