In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee addressed the issue of whether the pro se complaint filed by the decedent’s surviving spouse tolled the statute of limitations in a medical malpractice and wrongful death action. In Beard v. Branson (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 31, 2016), the decedent suffered complications after undergoing colon surgery. She was transferred by helicopter to a medical center in Nashville, where it was determined she was in septic shock. While undergoing emergency surgery, the decedent went into cardiac arrest and died. The decedent’s husband filed a pro se complaint against the defendants, asserting medical malpractice and requesting damages for the decedent’s pain and suffering, economic loss, and other damages.
The defendants filed motions to dismiss the wrongful death action on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired, arguing that the pro se complaint filed by the decedent’s husband was nullified because he was attempting to assert the decedent’s claims in a representative capacity. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that Tennessee’s wrongful death statute authorized the surviving spouse to maintain an action on behalf of himself. After a trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding damages of $750,000.
On appeal, the court examined Tennessee’s wrongful death statute to determine whether the petition was timely filed. The court determined that the plain language of the statute established that the only cause of action in a wrongful death suit is that of the decedent against the wrongdoer. The court then concluded that, despite the fact that they may recover damages for individual losses, neither the decedent’s husband nor her children had their own individual claims to assert in the case. Therefore, the decedent’s survivors could only assert a cause of action in a representative capacity.
In Tennessee, an individual has the right to represent himself or herself in court. However, the right of self-representation only allows that person to manage his or her own case, and they may not appear in a representative capacity on behalf of another person without an attorney. Therefore, the court found that, since the claims asserted by the husband were brought in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and were not his individual claims, his pro se complaint was void and did not toll the statute of limitations. In addition, the subsequent claims of the survivors did not relate back to the void complaint, and they were also barred by the statute of limitations. The court reversed the verdict and remanded the matter to the trial court to dismiss the claims.
The medical malpractice attorneys at the Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard provide dedicated legal representation to victims of negligent medical treatment. Our capable injury lawyers have the experience and skill to successfully pursue compensation from those responsible for your injuries. To learn more from one of our knowledgeable malpractice attorneys, call Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard at (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.