Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Surviving Spouse Maintains Priority in Filing Wrongful Death Case Even if Surviving Spouse Possibly Negligent in Cause of Death

March 5, 2018

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the surviving spouse of a person killed in a vehicle accident could initiate a wrongful death action on the decedent’s behalf even though the surviving spouse’s negligence allegedly contributed to the decedent’s death. 

In March 2012, Sharon Myres was a passenger in her husband’s vehicle when they were involved in a multi-vehicle collision in Sumner County. Mrs. Myres was killed, and her husband, Charles Myres, was subsequently charged with vehicular homicide for her death. Mrs. Myres’ daughter, Brittany Noel Nelson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Charles Myres and one of the other drivers involved in the collision. Mr. Myres also filed a wrongful death action, and the trial court dismissed Ms. Nelson’s complaint because, under the wrongful death statutes, Mr. Myres, as the surviving spouse, has priority to institute the lawsuit. 

Ms. Nelson appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.  The Court of Appeals concluded that Mr. Myres had a conflict of interest if his claim stood because other parties alleged he caused the accident. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Mr. Myres’ application to appeal.  After examining the wrongful death statutes and applicable case law, the Supreme Court concluded that surviving spouses have priority to institute wrongful death actions even when the surviving spouse’s negligence caused the death in question.  The Court also ruled that Mr. Myres did not waive his right to institute the lawsuit by only suing the other driver and that he did not have a conflict of interest. 

In an opinion authored by Justice Roger A. Page, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and ruled that based on current wrongful death statutes, the surviving spouse maintained priority to institute the wrongful death action under the circumstances presented in this case.  Here, because the surviving spouse filed a wrongful death action, the daughter’s wrongful death complaint was properly dismissed. 

To read the unanimous opinion in Brittany Noel Nelson et al. v. Charles Myres et al., authored by Justice Roger A. Page, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.