Common Questions About Wrongful Death Law in Tennessee
In our Frequently Asked Questions, our wrongful death attorneys answer questions about the law in Tennessee, the rights of surviving family members, and what to expect from a wrongful death lawsuit. If you don’t find the answers you need here, or if you need immediate assistance, reach out to our Nashville law firm today at (615) 807-7900.
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How is Wrongful Death Money Distributed Among Family Members?
One of the questions many family members want to know when a loved one is killed by someone else’s carelessness is…. If there is a recovery, how do the various family members split the proceeds?
This is a great question and one that is often litigated. Fortunately, we have a body of law in Tennessee that gives us direction.
Tennessee’s Wrongful Death Law is a creature of statute. This means that the rights of a deceased person are governed not by prior rulings of courts per se (i.e. “common law”) but are determined by the legislature. Unfortunately, the legislature does not foresee every possible occurrence, so we look first to the written law, and then to the cases interpreting that law.
WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO SUE?
One of the first things to understand is that there are 2 categories, or classes, of people in wrongful death cases. First, you must identify the proper parties who have the right to bring the lawsuit and control the litigation. Secondly, you must identify all people who have the right to share in the proceeds of that lawsuit. These are not one in the same most of the time.
For example, suppose there is a man who is married, divorced, has 3 adult children, then gets remarried and is living with his second wife at the time he is killed in a wreck caused by a dump truck. Who gets the proceeds from any recovery by the dump truck’s insurance carrier? Who has the right to sue? Is it the children… or the current spouse?
Tennessee law is clear on the “priority” of who can properly bring the lawsuit. That right clearly rests with the surviving spouse. If the surviving spouse does not act, or waives her right to sue, then any of the 3 children can bring the lawsuit. What if the children file the lawsuit right away and the wife brings her lawsuit on behalf of her husband 10 months later, who controls the lawsuit? The wife has the statutory right of control to bring the lawsuit, and if properly filed, will take priority over the children’s claims, which will be dismissed. The surviving spouse has the right to either litigate the claim or to settle in a manner that is binding on the children. Their consent is not material to the outcome of any settlement or decision to proceed to trial. The children also do not have the privilege to employ separate counsel to protect their interest in receiving a share of the wrongful death proceeds.
The children do have a right to “consortium damages” from the wrongful death proceeds. However, this claim is not considered a “separate claim” or an independent cause of action in the case. The children’s claims are merely considered one component of the value of the decedent’s life.
HOW ARE THE PROCEEDS DIVIDED?
If proceeds are obtained in settlement or judgment in a wrongful death claim, how are they divided? Again, the law is clear … Proceeds of a wrongful death action are distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. Foster v. Jeffers, 813 S.W.2d 755(1963) These are the same laws that govern the distribution of the assets of a person’s estate if there is no will. If there is a spouse and no children, the surviving spouse will get 100% of the proceeds. If there is a surviving spouse and 1 child, the proceeds will be split equally. If there are 2 children and a surviving spouse, the proceeds will be divided 1/3 each. The surviving spouse will never receive less than a 1/3 share of the proceeds, with the remainder of funds being divided amongst the number of children heirs.
There is no need for every wrongful death beneficiary to bring a lawsuit or intervene in a lawsuit filed by another beneficiary in order to preserve his or her right to receive a portion of the wrongful death proceeds. Shedd v. Community Health Systems, Inc., (citation omitted).
There are some exceptions to this general rule. For example, if the surviving spouse’s actions played a role in the death of the decedent, he/she may not be able to recover (i.e. murder, drinking and driving contributed to a spouse’s death). Nelson v. Myres, (citation omitted). Prenuptial and ante/post-nuptial agreements may also inadvertently waive the right to share in any recovery proceeds of a wrongful death claim. If the surviving spouse is behind on child support payments, he may not recover until he has brought those payments current, with interest. If one spouse has abandoned the other spouse while still “married” then that person may not share in the proceeds. T.C.A. 20-5-106(c).
These cases are intensely fact specific and there is not always a “one size fits all” approach. If you have lost a loved one through the carelessness of someone else, you may wish to contact one of our firm’s award-winning lawyers, who are constantly battling these exact types of cases on a daily basis, and sit down with us to discuss the facts of your case, and show you exactly what you need to do to protect yourself.
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How can I help my loved ones cope with a relative’s wrongful death?
The sudden loss of a family member is the most difficult thing a person will ever have to experience. Survivors often feel angry, overwhelmed, and even succumb to long periods of apathy or depression as they attempt to cope with the loss. While there is no easy way to overcome the death of a relative, there are a few things that can be done to make the grieving process easier for all members of the family.
Helpful Tips for Coping With a Loved One’s Wrongful Death
Any death can cause upheaval for a family, but a death that happens suddenly does not allow survivors any time to prepare for the loss. Deaths can cause a number of changes for a family, including emotional suffering, financial problems, and uncertainty about the future. The shock of losing a loved one is often replaced by the shock of restructuring all aspects of life to fill the gaps left by the lost family member—gaps that can continue to exist long after the wrongful death occurs.
The time it takes to grieve will vary from person to person, but adults can do many things to help themselves through the grieving process. These may include:
- Understand that it will take time. Survivors often have good days and bad days when it comes to coping with loss. If you have a bad day, it is important not to tear down all the work you have done throughout the process. Remember that it’s going to take a while before you feel “normal” again, and there’s no way to speed up that process.
- Put a support system in place. It is vital to establish strong ties to people you can trust and who can help you throughout the process. Although you may be a strong and proud person, there is no human being who can grieve all alone. You and the rest of your family may need help from parents, siblings, friends, teachers, or support groups to help you get through the grieving process. A support system reminds survivors that they are not alone and that others have made it through a similar experience, allowing them to share your burden.
- Set new routines and minimize triggers. Establishing a normal daily routine can help all members of the family get through loss by minimizing feelings of panic or frustration. If the deceased person used to make dinner, accept offers from friends and family to fill the gap until a permanent solution is found. Try to keep the schedules of the children’s activities (such as mealtimes, after-school activities, and bedtime) consistent.
- Get answers that will allow you closure. These deaths often involve negligence, and families are owed answers to all of their questions so they can move on with their lives. If the person who died was responsible for earning a large portion of the family income or died under suspicious circumstances, survivors should seek an attorney’s advice immediately. An experienced accident lawyer can determine what really happened leading up to the accident, and tell you whether you are owed compensation for wrongful death in Tennessee.
Children May React to the Death Differently
Children may have a hard time understanding death, and often react to a loss differently than adults. For example, children may suddenly show these uncharacteristic behaviors:
- Solitude. Children in a state of emotional shock may spend long periods without talking or prefer to be left alone.
- Regression. Toddlers and elementary school children may suddenly regress into old habits, such as bedwetting, refusing to leave a parent’s side, or demanding to be held.
- Acting out. A child may get into trouble at school, have outbursts of anger, or start fights with siblings to cope with feelings of helplessness.
- Apathy. Teenagers may express little or no emotion, get poor grades, or demonstrate a lack of feeling toward others.
Parents often want to take their child’s burden on themselves, but this just isn’t possible during the grieving process. The best way to be a strong support for children is to be there when they need you. Encourage anything that helps the process, such as questions and quality time, and allow them to express their feelings of loss by saying they miss the person, or they wish that they were still here. Give them room to experience their feelings, check in with them regularly, and wait until they are ready to talk.
If you and your children are suffering after the loss of a loved one, we can help. Contact our legal team today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation.
What type of compensation is available for wrongful death claims in Tennessee?
When a loved one suffers a fatal injury due to the negligence of another, it has a profound impact on your entire family. In addition to grief and loss, you may be burdened with the financial responsibilities of the deceased. In Tennessee, if a death is caused by an intentional, reckless, or negligent act, you may be eligible to pursue compensation through a wrongful death claim.
A wrongful death claim requires proof that the deceased’s fatal injuries were directly caused by the negligence of another. When fault is established, the next of kin can pursue a suit to collect damages on behalf of the deceased.
Wrongful Death Compensation Options to Pursue
Tennessee allows next of kin to pursue wrongful death claims on behalf of their deceased loved ones. When pursuing such a claim, you can request compensation for the following:
- Medical expenses. You can claim compensation for any medical expenses accrued between the time of the accident and the resulting death. However, you must be able to prove that the accident directly caused the fatal injuries.
- Lost wages. You can claim compensation on behalf of the deceased for any lost wages the deceased was unable to collect between the time of the injury and his death. If an accident prevented your loved one from returning to work, whether he was hospitalized, bedridden, or disabled as a result of the accident, the liable party can be held responsible for the wages he was unable to earn.
- Funeral bills. You can claim compensation for the cost of the funeral and burial. Funerals can easily cost thousands of dollars, and without compensation, you may have to dip into valuable savings accounts.
- Potential earnings. You can claim compensation based on the deceased’s earning potential. In other words, if your loved one had not been killed in an accident, his life expectancy would have been somewhere around 75 years. In that time, he would have had the potential to make money and contribute to your family’s finances. Since the opportunity to contribute was taken from him, you have the opportunity to take it back by pursuing compensation from the liable party.
- Loss of consortium. You can claim compensation based on the loss a fatal accident causes you and your family. Although difficult to put a price on, factors that are considered for compensation value include loss of love, companionship, social interactions, and relationships. For example, if a wife and mother is killed in a car crash, the father could pursue a wrongful death claim against the at-fault driver. In addition to medical expenses, funeral costs, and lost wages, this claim can also include damages for the personal loss of his wife as well as the children’s loss of their mother. In essence, the at-fault driver will be held accountable for robbing the husband of his relationship with his wife, and robbing the children of their mother. Again, putting a price tag on this can be difficult, but with the help of an experienced attorney, you’ll have the chance to recover at least some financial comfort.
Pursuing Your Claim to Begin Recovering From Your Grief
For more information about pursuing a wrongful death claim, feel free to browse our site and learn how our vast experience and knowledge can help you get the settlement you deserve. Need a more one-on-one approach? Contact our office directly at 877-959-8847 to speak with attorney John L. Griffith about how to begin your claim. The loss of a loved one is never easy, especially when financial hardships begin to stack up. Let us be the helping hand you need to overcome your grief and secure your financial future. Call now!