On December 27, 2017, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in Spires v. Simpson to clarify the conditions in which one may bring about a wrongful death suit and the appropriate acquisition of remedies, specifically when filed by parents who owe child support. In instances of wrongful death, parties may bring claims to affirm that the deceased individual’s passing is the result of negligence or misconduct that may have resulted in significant and quantifiable damages.
Typically, the law provides for two (2) potential claims that may be utilized in these situations. Some states provide that the claims of the deceased be transferred to the immediate family, and that they are qualified to receive remedies from the damages. Others allow for the petition of a wrongful death claim specifying that the aggrieved party wishes to receive adequate recompense as a result of the event. Recently, the Supreme Court has clarified that Tennessee has somewhat of a hybrid system, and that immediate relatives are entitled to bring about personal lawsuits should they desire.
In Spires v. Simpson, Charity Spires and Kenneth Spires had a son, Uriah, born in 2009. Mr. Spires abandoned the newborn and his mother, and he provided no financial support for the two, ad never sought proper divorce proceedings. Mr. Spires remained absent until Mrs. Spires’ death in a car accident in October 2010, that resulted in the reassignment of Uriah’s custody to his maternal grandmother. The accident, involving Haley Reece Simpson, became the basis for Mr. Spires’ wrongful death suit in Monroe County claiming that the negligence of Ms. Simpson’s parents was to blame for his wife’s death. Mr. Spires asked to be awarded the money damages for himself and Uriah, prompting Uriah’s maternal grandmother to petition to become party to the lawsuit.
Joined by Mrs. Spire’s brother, Major Dana Trent Hensley, the two argued that Mr. Spires should not be allowed to claim wrongful death on the basis of two (2) Tennessee statutes that state a parent who owes child support cannot receive damages from a wrongful death lawsuit. At that time, Mr. Spires had nearly $72,000 in back child support for four (4) other children unrelated to Mrs. Spires. The trial court sided with Major Hensley and the grandmother, prompting Mr. Spires to appeal. The Court of Appeals found in favor of Mr. Spires, arguing that the statutes did not prevent Mr. Spires from a wrongful death suit. Following this decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court allowed Mr. Spires to appeal.
The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed with the decisions of both the trial and intermediate appellate court, citing that the statutes were intended by lawmakers to be applied in three (3) distinct situations: (1) in instances where the child has died, (2) in cases where the parents are separated or divorced, or (3) where one parent owes the other parent child support for from a wrongful death suit in the case of a child he or she failed to support financially. The laws were not designed with the intent to apply to this particular instance, because the child support arrearage payments were not due to the children unrelated to the decedent.
As such, the Court saw fit to reverse part of the Court of Appeals’ ruling in a unanimous decision, stated in a decision by Justice Holly Kirby that, “we affirm the Court of Appeal’s holding that newly enacted wrongful death statues regarding a surviving spouse’s waiver based on abandonment of a decedent spouse may not be applied retroactively.” For this reason, the Supreme Court held that Mr. Spires could share in the recompense from the wrongful death suit against the Simpsons, and he could file his suit as he saw fit. Furthermore, it held that guardians of the children for whom Mr. Spires held child support could employ any other means necessary to bring claims against Mr. Spires for a share of the settlement money owed for back child support payments.