Can You Sue Yourself In A Wrongful Death Action?

The title may sound like a riddle -- but it's exactly what is taking place in one Utah court. The Utah Court of Appeals recently ruled that a woman was permitted to sue herself for negligence for the death of her husband in an auto accident. Although this case is unusual, it may mark the beginning of a change in the scope of wrongful death lawsuits. Read on to learn more about wrongful death actions and how such a change could affect you.

What is involved in a typical wrongful death lawsuit?

A wrongful death lawsuit is a type of tort action that seeks financial compensation for a death caused by an individual's (or corporation's) negligence or reckless actions. The damages awarded may be intended to compensate the surviving individuals for loss of the deceased's income, emotional distress, and any medical bills or other expenses incurred as a result of the accident. In some cases, punitive damages may also be awarded -- these damages are intended to punish the defendant and prevent future such occurrences.

Generally, a wrongful death lawsuit is brought by the surviving spouse or children who were personally affected by the death -- however, these lawsuits can also be filed on behalf of the deceased individual's estate.

To recover in a wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiff will need to establish that the defendant owed a certain duty of care to the deceased, that they breached this duty, and that this breach directly led to the deceased's death. 

For example, if the deceased was killed by a drunk driver, the wrongful death attorney would need to show that the driver owed a duty of care to the deceased (a duty to operate his or her vehicle in a safe manner), that the driver breached this duty (by driving while impaired), and that this directly caused the death.

How can someone be permitted to sue themselves?

In the Utah case, the Court of Appeals determined that, contrary to previous case law, the plaintiff should be permitted to sue herself for damages caused by her own negligence. One of the reasons they reached this result was because any damages awarded would go to the estate of the deceased -- not directly to the plaintiff. These damages could be used to pay creditors and pass down to other heirs (although there were none in this specific situation), rather than to benefit the person who caused the death. 

In certain situations, a deceased individual may have children from a previous marriage who would inherit any judgment or liquidated damages -- courts may be more likely to allow someone to sue him- or herself if it meant providing financial support for other individuals.

What does this mean for other states?

This is an unusual case and it may not be soon repeated in other jurisdictions. However, it does demonstrate that courts may be willing to permit a single person to sit as plaintiff and defendant in a wrongful death action if the eventual financial benefit will pass to the estate of the deceased, rather than to the plaintiff (and defendant). This ensures that the defendant is not rewarded for engaging in reckless or negligent behavior.

It is equally possible that lobbyists for insurance companies and other interested parties will petition state legislatures (including the Utah legislature) to change the laws that would allow for such a result. For example, in the Utah case, the ability of the plaintiff to sue herself as a defendant hinged on the definition of "another" in the law. This law, as stated, permitted someone to sue for damages caused "by another" -- which could include themselves.