In what may be a first-of-its-kind decision, a state Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling to allow a father who abandoned his family, to get half the money awarded to his daughter after parties reached a settlement in the wrongful death of the child's mother.
And in another rare move, based on the egregiousness of the case, the Tennessee Supreme Court is using its “reach-down power” to review the case without being asked.
The man left his family when his daughter was 18 months old and paid no child support in the months before the mother died in a 2010 car crash. But because the couple was not legally divorced at the time of the woman's death, the man is still considered a surviving spouse.
A month after the woman's death, the estranged husband filed a lawsuit against the 17-year-old driver involved in the fatal crash and her family, who owned the vehicle involved in the collision. That same month, a juvenile court judge granted custody of the toddler to her maternal grandmother. In 2012, the grandmother and maternal uncle filed additional petitions to allow the uncle to adopt the child. The court agreed, severing the parental rights of the father and awarding legal custody to the uncle. The birth father did not showed up for the hearing to terminate his parental rights.
After the girl was adopted, the girl's grandmother and uncle (now adoptive father) filed motions to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the child. At the time of the wrongful death lawsuit, the man owed about $72,000 in child support to four other women for four other children. Legally, he did not owe money to the woman who died, because they were not divorced and the woman had not sought a court order for child support.
The insurance company involved in the wrongful death lawsuit agreed to pay $100,000. As the surviving spouse, the estranged husband believed he was entitled to half the settlement. The grandmother and uncle challenged that assumption and during a bench trial, a judge sided with them, ruling the maternal family was entitled to the full amount to be held in trust for the child.
In a bench trial, there is no jury and the judge decides the case based on questions of law and questions of fact. As in this case, questions of law can include deciding issues regarding the application of the law, whereas questions of fact include weighing the strength of evidence and credibility of witnesses.
The judge determined that under Tennessee law, the surviving spouse was disqualified from receiving the settlement because he owed outstanding child support to the other four women. However, the state Court of Appeals interpreted the law differently. They decided the law meant that the husband could not collect any portion of the settlement until his back child support was paid, therefor, they overturned the ruling of the original judge and awarded $50,000 to the estranged spouse to be paid directly into child support for the other four women. Because he owes at least $22,000 more than he was awarded the man will get no portion of the settlement.
The wrongful death of a loved one can be complicated. Family members need the help of experienced attorneys to build a successful case. Call the offices of trial attorneys Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian at 800-529-6162 or contact them online. The firm handles cases in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.