Like all states, Tennessee has a set of statutes that apply to wrongful death claims. These laws permit a deceased person's survivors or estate to file a lawsuit if the person died as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act. In this article, we will look at some key parts of Tennessee's wrongful death laws, including:
In Tennessee, the right to file a wrongful death lawsuit arises when a person (or fetus) who dies from "injuries received from another" or "by the wrongful act, omission, or killing by another" would have been entitled to file a personal injury lawsuit had he or she survived. (Tenn. Code § 20-5-106 (2021).)
Tennessee law 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). As with personal injury cases in general, many types of events can be the basis for a wrongful death claim, including:
In a wrongful death lawsuit, as in all personal injury cases, the defendant's liability is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation ("damages"), which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent's survivors or estate. This is one big difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide case, where a conviction will be penalized with jail or prison time, probation, and other sanctions.
Another difference to note between criminal prosecutions for homicide and civil lawsuits for wrongful death: In a criminal case, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability need only be shown "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the decedent's death. It is possible, though, for a single act to result in criminal charges and a wrongful death claim: A defendant can be sued for wrongful death in civil court while facing criminal charges related to the same death. In fact, Tennessee law specifies that a wrongful death lawsuit can proceed even if the death was the result of a felony.
Read more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
Tennessee law allows only certain family members to file a wrongful death claim. Initially, the right belongs to the deceased person's surviving spouse. If there is no surviving spouse, the following parties may file the lawsuit, in order:
Note that if the personal representative or administrator files the wrongful death claim, any damages recovered will be awarded to the deceased's surviving family members. (Read more about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.)
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors. Depending on the facts of the case, damages available in a Tennessee wrongful death case can include compensation for losses such as:
Get more information on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death claims must be filed within a specific period of time, set by a law called a "statute of limitations." The statute of limitations that applies to wrongful death cases in Tennessee requires that the lawsuit be filed no later than one year from the date of the person's death. (Tenn. Code § 28-3-104 (2021).) If the case is not filed within this time, the surviving family members will most likely lose the opportunity to file the wrongful death claim at all.
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Tennessee, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death cases are complicated, and a lawyer who is experienced in this area can offer advice that applies to your situation.