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.
Estate of Sisk v. Manzanares, 270 F.Supp.2d 1265 (D. Kan. 2003).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a decedent’s (the person who dies) estate recover any type of money from the decedent’s wrongful death?
This case explored the issue of whether a decedent’s estate can recover any type of judgment (money) from the decedent’s wrongful death. In exploring this issue, the court concluded that a wrongful death claim could only be brought on behalf and for the benefit of the decedent’s heirs, not his estate. Id. at 1281.
The deceased inmate was incarcerated on July 2, 1999 to serve a one-year sentence at the Department of Corrections (“DOC”) for violating a restraining order. Id. at 1268. A few days later, on July 6, 1999, the inmate’s mother became concerned that her son was suicidal, believing that he had written a suicide note. Id. The mother contacted the DOC’s suicide prevention training coordinator and he assured her that he would check out the situation and nothing would happen to her son. Id. After finding a suicide note in the son’s cell, the coordinator placed the son on suicide watch and moved him into a “hard lockdown” cell. Id. Normally, an inmate who was on suicide watch would be put into a “rubber room.” Id. at 1268-69. However, for whatever reason, the son was put into the “hard lockdown” cell, which was the back-up room if all the rubber rooms were filled with suicide watch inmates. Id. at 1269. Yet, at the time of the occurrence, no rubber rooms were occupied. Id. In addition, the DOC was out of suicide preventive blankets so the son was given a standard-issue woolen blanket. Id. Further, as long as the son was on suicide watch and in the cell, the officers were responsible to check on him every 15 minutes. Id. at 1270. However, there were some inconsistencies in their checking and the officers lost sight of the son at around 11:30PM. Id. at 1270-71. After entering the cell, the officers found that the son had used the standard-issued woolen blanket to commit suicide. Id. at 1271. The plaintiffs, the son’s estate and his parents, asserted negligence claims against the officers and the jury awarded the parents (not the estate) $2,000 for funeral expenses and $10 million for noneconomic damages. Id. at 1267.
In response to the jury verdict, the inmate’s parents asked the court to also enter judgment in favor of the son’s estate. Id. at 1279. In response, the court noted that they would only review the matter for plain error. Id. at 1281. Furthermore, to constitute plain error, the court must have made a mistake that was both obvious and substantial. Id. In this case, the court was unpersuaded that it made a mistake at all, let alone a mistake that was obvious and substantial, by only awarding the parents damages. Id. The court noted that the only explanation they could determine as to why the plaintiffs brought up this motion was that the plaintiffs believed that the son’s estate would have received an additional amount of money had the estate been included in the verdict. Id. However, the court found that it was well settled under Kansas law that a wrongful death claim could only be brought on behalf and for the benefit of the decedent’s heirs, not his estate. Id. Thus, as a matter of law, the inmate’s estate was not entitled to recover anything from his wrongful death. Id.