Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co. – Determining Who Can Sue in Wrongful Death Action

In wrongful death actions resulting from car accidents in South Carolina, there is a select group of individuals who have the right to sue and collect damages as a result of a person’s death.
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South Carolina law requires wrongful death lawsuits to be filed by the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate. This can be someone the decedent previously named in a will, or it could be someone designated by the court. The wrongful death claim is then pursued on behalf of the deceased person’s surviving family members, including a surviving spouse, children, parents or other heirs.

Our Greenville wrongful death attorneys recognize there is typically a hierarchy established in these claims. For example, a surviving spouse will have a greater stake to the claim than adult children. Likewise, minor children will have a greater stake than the decedent’s surviving parents.

Still, each case is different, and the courts have generally held that these matters may require consideration on an individual basis. The case of Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co. is one example of where courts have declined to make hard-and-fast rules regarding who can sue for wrongful death, in order to avoid an “absurd and unjust” outcome.

This kind of approach is increasingly important given the ever-changing makeup of the American family.

Here, a man was killed in an auto accident caused by another driver. The deceased man’s estranged wife sued for compensation from the other driver and two insurance companies, asserting the other driver’s negligence caused the wreck.

The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding the estranged wife had no grounds on which to collect compensation because she and her husband had separated in 1997 and had virtually zero contact since then, although they never formally divorced. The court further found that based on the state’s wrongful death statutes, the man’s minor children (not born within the marriage) did not have cause of action.

The wife did not appeal, but guardians for the children did.

The defendants argued that because the decedent’s wife was still alive, she was the “surviving spouse,” and because she was not entitled to anything, there was no set-aside from the spouse’s recovery for the children.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s ruling, finding the defendants’ interpretation of state statutes to be flawed. The court held that wrongful death statutes must be considered under the unique facts of each case. That means in this case, even if the “surviving spouse” is not entitled to damages, that doesn’t mean the children are barred from such a claim.

The court further indicated that wrongful death statutes are put in place to impose liability on the wrongdoer and also to protect relational interests, particularly where minor children are involved.

The court called the defendant’s interpretation of the statute unfair and unreasonable and contrary to the intention of the legislature, which was to allow recovery of damages by relatives of the deceased who would have benefited had the decedent lived.

The children are lineal heirs of the decedent’s estate, and just because his estranged spouse was not entitled to collect damages does not mean they were barred from such a claim.

The court remanded the case with instructions to allow the guardians to continue to pursue the claim on behalf of the children.

Contact the South Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., July 18, 2014, Wisconsin Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Reis v. Volvo Cars of N. Am.: Car Accidents Caused by Mechanical Problems, July 14, 2014, Greenville Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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