The Utah Supreme Court has affirmed the right of an individual to act as both plaintiff and defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from a fatal car accident in which they were both the negligent driver and the person who suffered the loss of a wrongful death.
The unusual case of Bagley v. Bagley has garnered international headlines, and will now proceed to trial after the state supreme court affirmed the decision of the appellate court to reverse the trial court’s dismissal of the claim. The trial court had reasoned a person can’t be both plaintiff and defendant. But the higher courts rule it is possible when we’re talking about a person who, in the plaintiff capacity, is acting as personal representative of the estate of the decedent. So in effect, they are not suing themselves for the personal injury they have personally inflicted, but rather, the wrongful death that their loved one suffered.
We don’t expect to see a glut of these kinds of cases anytime soon, but it could open the doors for some families to recover damages from insurance where they otherwise might not have been able to do so.
According to court records, plaintiff was the common law wife of decedent. One evening in December 2011, the pair were traveling in a 2000 Range Rover, with the wife in the driver’s seat. At some point, she lost control of the vehicle and it flipped. As a result, her husband was thrown from the sport utility vehicle and suffered numerous severe injuries. He died 10 days later as a result of those injuries.
Wife maintained a motor vehicle insurance policy through State Farm. To compel State Farm to indemnify her in dual capacities as both sole heir and personal representative of her husband’s estate, she filed this lawsuit against herself as an individual. Plaintiff, as her husband’s heir, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against herself, alleging that she had negligently caused her husband’s death, thereby depriving his sole heir of his love, companionship, society, comfort and care. As representative of his estate, she also claimed a second cause of action under the state’s survival statute, alleging she (as defendant) negligently caused her husband to experience pain and suffering prior to his death which entitled his estate to collect damages.
As stated earlier, the trial court dismissed the claim, but the appeals court reversed. In its reversal, the appellate panel held that the wrongful death and survival action statutes don’t prohibit an heir or personal representative from filing a lawsuit on these counts – even when the heir/ personal representative is the tortfeasor.
The state supreme court granted review of the matter.
Defendant argued here that the language in wrongful death and survivor action statutes both use the phrase, “of another” when referring to negligent actions. However, the court held that these statutes, “simply do not require a plaintiff to be a different person than the defendant.” Defendant secondly argued the application of the “absurdity doctrine,” where the outcome of a decision would be “absurd.” However, defendant didn’t preserve this argument for appeal and, even if she did, the court held that it only applies where the statute in question is ambiguous – and that’s not the case here.
The appellate court’s decision was affirmed and the case remanded for further proceedings.
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Bagley v. Bagley, Oct. 27, 2016, Utah Supreme Court
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