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Tennessee Appellate Court Identifies Proper Family Member to Bring Wrongful Death Case Following Mother’s Death in Car Accident

When someone perishes in an accident caused by another party’s negligence, the victim’s family may be able to seek compensation for their loved one’s wrongful death in a court of law. Exactly who is entitled to bring the lawsuit is largely a matter of state law, but unique situations can occur that take a particular case outside the normal statutory scheme.

A Tennessee appellate court was recently asked to determine the appropriate family member to bring a wrongful death case in a situation in which the person who normally would have had statutory priority was, himself, a possible defendant in the case.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was a woman who filed a wrongful death lawsuit following the death of her mother in a multi-vehicle accident. The Circuit Court for Sumner County dismissed the plaintiff’s case on the basis that her mother’s husband (the plaintiff’s step-father) had also filed a wrongful death lawsuit based on the same series of events and that the husband, as the mother’s surviving spouse, had priority to prosecute the claim under Tennessee law. The plaintiff appealed.

Holding of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Nashville

The court reversed the trial court’s order dismissing the plaintiff’s cause of action. The court first pointed out that the accident giving rise to the plaintiff’s case was a four-vehicle accident involving automobiles driven by the husband of the plaintiff’s mother, as well as three other individuals. The accident allegedly began when the car driven by the mother’s husband collided with a second car, and then those vehicles crossed into the opposing lane of traffic and hit the other cars.

The court then acknowledged that the daughter’s lawsuit named both the husband and the driver of the car with which his vehicle initially collided as defendants, while the husband’s lawsuit named only the other driver as a negligent party. In reviewing the Tennessee Wrongful Death Statute, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106 et seq., the court found that the husband had the “prior and superior right” to bring the wrongful death action at hand, but the court went on to find that the husband had an inherent conflict because his own conduct may have been part of the reason for the mother’s wrongful death.

Since the daughter’s lawsuit preserved the entire claim against both the husband and the other driver (whereas the husband’s claim named only the other driver as a defendant), the court found that she was the proper party to bring suit under the circumstances. In so holding, the court noted that its opinion only resolved the issue of who should prosecute the wrongful death action; it did not address any issue pertaining to the rights of recovery of the various parties once the wrongful death claim was resolved.

Contact an Experienced Knoxville Wrongful Death Attorney

If you have recently lost a family member in a car or truck accident or due to another act of negligence, you should talk to a lawyer as soon as possible. Tennessee law imposes a statute of limitations for the filing of a claim in such a situation, and claims not asserted in a timely fashion will most likely be dismissed (with the family recovering nothing). To talk to a knowledgeable east Tennessee wrongful death attorney about your loved one’s death, call the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., at (865) 524-5657 for a free, confidential case evaluation. We serve clients in Knoxville, Maryville, Oak Ridge, Gatlinburg, and other cities throughout east Tennessee.

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