Tennessee Supreme Court Reverses Dismissal Of Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed Without Lawyer

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has rejected a defendant hospital’s argument that a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a surviving spouse was null and void because the spouse was not represented by a lawyer when the lawsuit was filed.    

In September 2004, Ruth Hartley was admitted to Trinity Hospital in Erin, Houston County, Tennessee, for elective colon surgery.  She developed complications from the surgery and died.  After her death, Mrs. Hartley’s husband, Denver Hartley, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several defendants, including Trinity Hospital, claiming that their negligent treatment caused Mrs. Hartley’s death.  Mr. Hartley was not represented by a lawyer when he filed the lawsuit. 

The defendants filed motions to dismiss Mr. Hartley’s lawsuit.  They argued that, although a person can represent himself in his own lawsuit, no one can file a lawsuit on behalf of another person unless they have a law license.  The defendants claimed that, in filing the wrongful death lawsuit, Mr. Hartley was representing either Mrs. Hartley or their adult children, so he was practicing law without a license.  For that reason, they argued, Mr. Hartley’s lawsuit must be dismissed. 

Mr. Hartley soon hired an attorney, and he amended his lawsuit to show that he was represented by a lawyer.  By that time, though, the statute of limitations for the wrongful death claim had run.

The defendants argued that the first complaint was null and void because Mr. Hartley was not represented by a lawyer, and the legal time limit had passed by the time Mr. Hartley hired a lawyer and filed an amended complaint, so his lawsuit had to be dismissed. 

The trial court held that the fact that Mr. Hartley was not represented by a lawyer when he filed the lawsuit did not make it null and void, so it refused to dismiss the lawsuit.  While the lawsuit was pending, Mr. Hartley died, and his daughter, Linda Beard, was substituted in his place as the plaintiff.  The case went to trial, and the jury awarded damages to Ms. Beard.  

The hospital appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed.  It held that the claim belonged to the decedent, Mrs. Hartley, and that Mr. Hartley could not file a lawsuit on behalf of his deceased wife without a lawyer.  The Court of Appeals held that the first wrongful death complaint was null and void, and Mr. Hartley hired a lawyer after the statute of limitations had run, so it dismissed the case.  The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Ms. Beard permission to appeal. 

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.  It held that the wrongful death claim did not actually belong to the decedent; under Tennessee law, upon Mrs. Hartley’s death, the claim passed to her surviving spouse, Mr. Hartley.  Because Mr. Hartley had the right to represent himself in his own lawsuit, the Court held, the original complaint, filed without a lawyer, was at least partially proper.  The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the lawsuit was timely, so it reversed the Court of Appeals’ dismissal of the lawsuit.      

To read the unanimous opinion in Linda Beard v. James William Branson and Trinity Hospital, L.L.C., authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.


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