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Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?

California allows the spouse or heirs of a deceased individual to file a wrongful death lawsuit against anyone whose negligence caused the individual’s death. In many cases the personal representative or executor of the estate brings a wrongful death claim on behalf of the persons entitled to recover. If successful, wrongful death claimants may recover losses attributed to the estate, such as the decedent’s medical bills and funeral costs, as well as economic and non-economic losses suffered by the individual heirs.

Utah Court Rules Executor May Sue Herself for Wrongful Death

While most wrongful death lawsuits involve third parties unrelated to the estate or the decedent, the Utah Supreme Court recently examined an unusual case where the executor of an estate filed a wrongful death claim against herself. This may sound illogical, but the court said the case could proceed.

The plaintiff (and defendant) in this case was the common law wife of the decedent. They were traveling in a car that she was driving. According to court records, at some point she “lost control” of the vehicle and it flipped over. The decedent was “thrown from the vehicle” and died 10 days later as a result of his injuries.

The wife was her husband’s sole heir and the personal representative of his estate. In those capacities she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against herself, alleging that as an individual defendant she negligently caused the decedent “to experience pain and suffering prior to his death,” which entitled the plaintiffs to recover damages. The wife, acting as the defendant, subsequently moved to dismiss the lawsuit that she filed as heir and personal representative.

If this sounds confusing, there is in fact a perfectly logical explanation. Like most people, the wife has car insurance. Her policy covers accidental injury or death to a third party. The wife, as personal representative, has a duty to try and recover this money, in part to help pay off any debts the decedent owed at the time of his death.

While a trial court judge rejected this lawsuit as “absurd” – i.e., a person cannot sue herself – the Utah appellate courts took a different stance. The state’s Supreme Court, affirming an earlier decision by the Utah Court of Appeals, said “the plain language” of the state’s wrongful death law does not prevent “a person acting in the capacity of an heir or personal representative from suing him or herself as an individual for negligently or wrongfully causing a decedent’s injury or death.” The Utah Supreme Court said to disallow this lawsuit would effectively be re-writing the wrongful death law, which it was not prepared to do.

Get Advice From a California Estate Planning Lawyer

Now, it should be noted that the decision to allow the wife to serve as personal representative of the estate was itself not before the appellate courts. In practice, this case would have been a lot simpler had a different person served as personal representative. Even if the estate recovers the insurance proceeds, it is unlikely the wife will be permitted to recover any damages as heir.

This unique case nonetheless illustrates the important role a personal representative plays in bringing a wrongful death lawsuit. There are many situations, such as medical malpractice, in which negligence leads to a person’s untimely death. Proper estate planning can ensure that a qualified person is ready to take action against the negligent parties (who are hopefully not the same person). If you would like to speak with an experienced San Diego estate planning attorney about your will or related documents, contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady today.

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