Tennessee Supreme Court Holds That Wrongful Death Claim Belongs to Surviving Spouse

Although the circumstances were unusual, the Tennessee Supreme has clarified that under Tennessee law a wrongful death claim did not belong to the decedent, but passed to decedent's husband upon her death, Linda Beard v. James William Branson and Trinity Hospital, L.L.C. The husband had filed a pro se wrongful death malpractice lawsuit shortly before the one-year statute of limitations lapsed. After expiration of the limitations period, he retained an attorney and filed an amended complaint. The decedent was also survived by two daughters. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment arguing that the husband’s initial pro se complaint was filed in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and the other statutory beneficiaries and that it was, therefore, void ab initio. They contended that the amended complaint could not relate back to the date of the initial complaint, and the lawsuit was therefore time-barred. The trial court denied the summary judgment motions and held a jury trial where the jury found both defendants liable and awarded damages. The Court of Appeals had reversed and held that the claim belonged to the decedent and therefore the husband could not file a lawsuit without a lawyer.

This all started back in 2004, when Ruth Hartley was admitted to Trinity Hospital in Erin, Tennessee for elective colon surgery. She developed complications from the surgery and died. It is a sad commentary on our judicial system that this case has gone on for 13 years. A unanimous Supreme Court held that under the plain language of Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes, the decedent’s right of action “pass[es] to” the surviving spouse upon the decedent’s death, and the surviving spouse asserts the right of action for the benefit of himself and other beneficiaries. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106, reversing the Court of Appeals, but sending the case back to the intermediate appellate court for consideration of other issues.

The opinion by Justice Holly Kirby is recommended reading, as she discusses Tennessee's confusing statutory wrongful death scheme, which she describes as “a hybrid between the survival and wrongful death statutes, resulting in a statutory scheme with a ‘split personality.'”