IN MISSOURI, CAN A DECEASED PERSON’S ESTATE BRING A WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM?
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.
Sullivan v. Carlisle, 851 S.W.2d 510 (Mo. 1993).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a deceased person’s estate bring a wrongful death claim?
A common misunderstanding about wrongful death actions under Missouri law is what exactly these claims are meant to compensate. Id. at 513. Such an action is not meant to “compensate” the deceased for the wrongful act that kills the individual. Id. Instead, these actions are “designed to compensate specifically designated relatives for the loss of the deceased.” Id. The statute lists the specific individuals that may bring such a claim, but what happens when the deceased is without any living relatives? Id. at 514. That was the issue in this case, where the court decided that in such a situation, the estate of the deceased can still not bring a wrongful death claim; the claim is simply lost for lack of any appropriate plaintiff. Id.
In this case, the deceased was walking on a sidewalk when Defendant ran her over. Id. at 512. The woman died from her injuries, but was survived by no living relatives. Id. The court appointed Plaintiff as the personal representative of the estate. Id. Plaintiff filed a claim for wrongful death against Defendant, claiming that Plaintiff could bring the cause of action as executor of the deceased’s estate. Id. The trial judge dismissed the claim, finding that the estate of the deceased was not allowed to bring a wrongful death claim. Id.
The court began by noting that “wrongful death is a statutory cause of action.” Id. This means that the General Assembly has full power to define every aspect of the cause of action—what a plaintiff must prove to recovery, what a plaintiff can recover, and even who the plaintiff must be. Id. at 513. This is precisely what the General Assembly did with the wrongful death statute, outlining three classes of individuals that can bring a wrongful death action. Id. First, if a spouse, child, grandchild, or parent is alive, they must bring the action. Id. Second, a sibling or niece/nephew may bring the action if no individual from the first group is living. Id. Third and finally, the court may appoint a “plaintiff ad litem” upon the application of “some person entitled to share in the proceeds of such action.” Id.
Looking at these groups, the court found that the estate of the deceased doesn’t fit into any of the groups. Id. An estate is not “some person” and is not entitled to any “share in the proceeds” of a wrongful death claim. Id. Beyond the language of the statute itself, the court found the purpose of the cause of action did not support allowing the estate to recover. Id. at 514. A wrongful death claim redresses the loss of a loved one, not the fact that the individual’s life was taken. Id. Thus, the estate is more akin to the individual, rather than a love one, and has not suffered the loss the wrongful death claim seeks to redress. Id.
The court then moved on to Plaintiff’s second argument: that the circumstances of this case should allow Plaintiff to recover for the claim even though it was not a proper plaintiff. Id. at 515-16. However, the court answered this final question by returning to the beginning: “wrongful death is a statutory cause of action.” Id. at 516. The General Assembly created the statute, and it alone can decide who a proper plaintiff is; the court has no ability to override such a decision. Id.