A recent opinion by the Tennessee Court of Appeals clarifies the law regarding the standing of a divorced parent in a child’s personal injury action. In Neale v. United Way of Greater Kingsport, a minor child injured his finger while participating in a woodworking shop activity at a facility operated by the defendants. His father subsequently brought a negligence claim against the defendants on behalf of the child as well as on his own behalf. The defendants argued in a motion for summary judgment that the father lacked standing to bring the action pursuant to T. C. A. § 20-1-105(b). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, and the father appealed.
The court of appeals noted that when a tort is committed against a child, there are two separate causes of action: (1) a parent’s cause of action for loss of services and medical expenses; and (2) a child’s cause of action for the elements of harm to him, such as pain and suffering or disfigurement. Tennessee law provides that when the father and mother of a minor child are living apart, and one parent has exclusive legal custody of the child, the parent with legal custody has the sole right to bring an action for the expenses and loss of the child’s services as the result of an injury (although there is an exception to the extent that the noncustodial parent has paid those expenses). In Neale, the parents were divorced, and the mother was designated as the primary residential parent. Accordingly, the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the father lacked standing to recover medical expenses or loss of the child’s services on his own behalf.
For the causes of action brought by the father as next friend of the child, however, the court of appeals reversed the trial court. The court explained that T. C. A. § 20-1-105 does not apply to a claim seeking damages on behalf of the child. Since minors cannot act for themselves to initiate a lawsuit, either their representative must bring the suit, or they may sue by using a next friend. The Neale court recognized that under the circumstances of the case, no rule of Tennessee law would preclude the father from maintaining an action as the child’s next friend. Therefore, the court ruled that the father did have the standing to file an action as next friend, seeking damages on behalf of the child for the injury to the child. The court reversed the summary judgment order as to the child’s claim and remanded the matter back to the trial court.
The personal injury attorneys at the Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard provide experienced legal representation for those pursuing compensation after an accident. If you are seeking guidance in a personal injury, family, or estate law matter, schedule a consultation by phone at (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.