Tennessee Court allows estranged husband to bring wrongful death suit but allocates of proceeds to back child support

by Mandy Hicks

Depending upon the law of the state in which a person dies, it may be possible for his or her survivors to file a wrongful death lawsuit, a survival action, or both. Typically, state law also dictates who has the right to file suit, the appropriate lawsuit(s), the types of damages that may be sought, and how the proceeds will be divided among the various interested parties.

Difficulties sometimes arise in identifying the proper party to bring the suit. When this happens, it is up to the trial court judge to apply the law to the particular facts of the case. If any litigant is dissatisfied with the judge’s ruling, he or she may seek relief in the court of appeals, or thereafter the state supreme court.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Spires v. Simpson, the plaintiff was the surviving spouse of a woman who died in a car accident in October 2010. He filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver of the other vehicle involved in the accident and that driver’s parents (the vehicle’s owners). At the time of the fatal accident, the plaintiff and the decedent were married and had an 18-month-old child together. However, the couple was not living together, and the plaintiff had four other children from other relationships.

In November 2010, the mother of the decedent was awarded custody of the 18-month-old child and was named the administrator of the decedent’s estate. In 2012, she sought permission to intervene in the plaintiff’s wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the decedent and the decedent’s minor child. She also sought to have the plaintiff removed from the action, alleging that he had abandoned the decedent in 2009 and had outstanding child support arrearages to the mothers of his other children. In a separate lawsuit, the plaintiff’s parental rights to his and the decedent’s child were terminated, and the child’s uncle adopted the child.

Eventually, the trial court entered an order substituting the child’s uncle as an intervening party and dismissing the plaintiff on the grounds that the plaintiff was statutorily disqualified from recovering wrongful death damages due to his outstanding child support arrearages. The plaintiff appealed.

Decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals

The appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision, finding that the plaintiff was not statutorily disqualified from commencing and maintaining the action but that he was statutorily disqualified from recovering proceeds from the suit until his child support obligations were paid. The court then remanded the case for distribution of the $100,000 settlement (the liability insurance limits of the defendants), directing that one-half of the proceeds go to the minor child, in trust with his uncle/adoptive father as trustee, and one-half to partially satisfy the plaintiff’s child support arrearages to his other children.

Get Assistance on a Car Accident Case in Tennessee or Kentucky

As this case illustrates, family situations can complicate wrongful death cases. If you have lost a loved one and want to talk to an attorney about your legal rights to file suit or to share in the proceeds of a settlement, the experienced Tennessee motor vehicle accident attorneys at English, Lucas, Priest & Owsley are here to help. Call us at 270-781-6500 and ask for a free consultation. Our offices are located in downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky, and we handle cases throughout both Kentucky and Tennessee, including in Gallatin, Brentwood, Morgantown, Russellville, and Glasgow.

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