In this article, we'll explore some key points of Tennessee law as it affects a wrongful death lawsuit in the state. We'll start by looking at the state's definition of "wrongful death" and who may file a wrongful death claim in the state's civil courts. Then, we'll examine the types of damages that may be available if a wrongful death claim succeeds. We'll finish with an overview of Tennessee's statute of limitations and how it affects wrongful death cases filed in the state.
How "Wrongful Death" is Defined in Tennessee
Tennesee Code Annotated section 20-5-106 defines a wrongful death as a death that is caused by "injuries received from another" or by "the wrongful act, omission, or killing by another."
Tennessee treats wrongful death claims as a special type of personal injury case, in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, the right to bring the claim passes to certain family members or to the personal representative of the deceased person's estate (more on this in the next section).
Tennessee allows a wrongful death claim to be filed in court even if a criminal charge for homicide has already been filed or will be filed in connection with the death. A wrongful death claim differs from a criminal charge in a number of key ways. For one thing, a wrongful death claim is a civil claim, filed by the family or personal representative directly. By contrast, a criminal charge is filed by the prosecuting attorney's office. What's more, liability in a wrongful death claim is expressed solely in terms of money damages, while culpability in a criminal case may be penalized with imprisonment, probation, or other forms of punishment.
Who May File a Tennessee Wrongful Death Claim?
Tennessee allows certain family members or the personal representative of the deceased person's estate to file a wrongful death claim.
Initially, the right to file the wrongful death claim belongs to the surviving spouse of the deceased person. If there is no surviving spouse, the claim belongs to the following parties, in order:
- the surviving children or next of kin
- the personal representative of the deceased person's estate
- the surviving parent or parents, if the deceased person was dependent on his or her parent at the time of death, and
- the administrator of the deceased person's state, if the deceased person was a dependent at the time of death.
Damages in a Tennessee Wrongful Death Case
For many years, wrongful death damages in Tennessee were limited to the damages the deceased person could have recovered if he or she had survived the fatal injury. They did not include losses the surviving family members suffered as a result of the death.
This longstanding rule has since been amended, and surviving family members can now recover certain types of damages for harm caused to them by the untimely death. Damages available in a Tennessee wrongful death case include compensation for:
- reasonable funeral and burial expenses
- loss of earning capacity during the period between the infliction of injury or illness and the time of death
- loss of enjoyment of life during the same period
- mental anguish the deceased person actually suffered as a result of the fatal injury or illness
- lost wages, including the value of wages and benefits the deceased would likely have earned if he or she had lived
- physical and mental suffering, loss of time, and necessary expenses incurred by family members as a result of the death, and
- loss of the deceased person's love, society, and companionship.
If the deceased person's next of kin is a minor, any damages recovered in the wrongful death case may be placed in a trust for the benefit of the minor once he or she reaches a certain age (usually 18 or 21).
Statute of Limitations for Tennessee Wrongful Death Claims
The relevant statute of limitations in Tennessee requires that all wrongful death cases be brought to court within one year of the date of the deceased person's death. If the case is not filed within this time, it will not be heard by the court, and the surviving family members will lose the opportunity to seek compensation for their losses via a wrongful death claim.
Several factors can affect the running of the one-year time limit. If you are running up against the filing deadline, it may be time to contact an experienced Tennessee wrongful death attorney to discuss your situation and make sure your legal options are preserved.