Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Fitzpatrick v. Hannibal Regional Hospital, 922 S.W.2d 840 (Mo. Ct. App. 1996).
This case addresses the following issue:
Who can bring a wrongful death claim when multiple relatives are still alive?
A unique aspect of wrongful death claims is the “class” system of determining who can bring such a claim. Id. at 843. A claim must be brought by the decedent’s spouse, children, grandchildren, or parents; then by siblings or nieces/nephews; and finally by anyone entitled to recover from the proceeds, through a specially appointed plaintiff ad litem. Id. These classes are set up to accommodate a means of recovery when there aren’t living members of a certain class. Id. However, this case dealt with the opposite problem: who can bring the claim when several members of the class survive the deceased? Id. Ultimately, the court found that any one member of the class can bring the claim, and all other members can join the suit through a process called intervening. Id. at 844. However, there is no obligation to intervene and failure to have all class members joined in the suit does not defeat the claim, so long as all members have notice of the lawsuit. Id.
Plaintiff in this action was the wife of the deceased. Id. at 841. The husband had died after receiving inadequate medical care at Defendant’s hospital. Id. Plaintiff filed suit for wrongful death based on this medical malpractice. Id. Plaintiff and husband also had several children, all of whom were notified of the action but initially choose not to join in the suit. Id.
Defendant argued that Plaintiff’s claim failed because the children—also proper plaintiffs under the statute—were not joined in the lawsuit. Id. at 843. The statute does require that the filing plaintiff provide proper notice to all other members of his or her class. Id. However, in regards to the argument that all these individuals must all be joined, the court found “this argument is completely unsound.” Id. at 844. There was nothing in the wrongful death statute or the joinder rule that support such an argument. Id. Instead, “any person within the class of beneficiaries may bring a wrongful death suit,” but none of the individuals have to bring such a suit—it made no sense to say that if one does bring suit, all the others must as well Id.
The court did note that other individuals could join in bringing in the suit, but “they are not required to do so.” Id. These individuals can even join the lawsuit once it is filed. Id. This is accomplished using the process of intervening, where the individual asserts his or her interest in an already filed lawsuit. Id. In fact, some of the children had joined the suit through this process here. Id. Thus, Plaintiff’s claim was valid. Id.