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Nelson v. Myres

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 18, 2017

BRITTANY NOEL NELSON, ET AL.
v.
CHARLES W. MYRES, ET AL.

          October 10, 2016 Session

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sumner County No. 2012CV567 Joe Thompson, Judge

         A woman died in a multi-vehicle accident. Two wrongful death actions were filed, one by the woman's daughter, the other by the woman's husband. The daughter's suit named the husband and others as defendants. The husband's suit named one of the other drivers as the only defendant. The trial court dismissed the daughter's complaint, holding that Tennessee's wrongful death statute creates only one cause of action and that the husband, as the surviving spouse, was granted priority to prosecute the action under the statute. The daughter appeals the dismissal of her complaint. Because the husband is unable to name himself as a defendant in the suit he has filed, he is not able to prosecute the wrongful death action in a manner consistent with the right of the decedent to sue all wrongdoers whose actions are alleged to have led to her death; accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court dismissing the daughter's complaint, reinstate the complaint, and remand the case for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Case Remanded

          Thomas F. Mink, Charles M. Duke, and William M. Leech, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Brittany Noel Nelson.

          Russell E. Edwards, Hendersonville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Charles W. Myres.

          James R. Tomkins, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Adenus Solutions Group, LLC; Adenus Group, LLC, Adenus Utilities Group, LLC, and Adenus Operations, LLC.

          Jon M. Cope, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Westfield Insurance.

          Richard H. Dinkins, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Frank G. Clement, Jr., P.J., M.S., and Kenny W. Armstrong, J., joined.

          OPINION

          RICHARD H. DINKINS, JUDGE

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         This appeal involves the dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit arising from a four-vehicle accident which occurred in Sumner County on March 23, 2012. The decedent, Sharon Myres, was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by her husband, Charles Myres, and died as a result of injuries she sustained in the accident. Justin Bennett, Joseph Groves, and James Berryman were the operators of the other vehicles involved. The accident is alleged to have occurred when the vehicles driven by Mr. Myres and Mr. Bennett collided and crossed into the opposing lanes of traffic, striking the vehicles driven by Mr. Groves and Mr. Berryman.

         Several suits were filed as a result of the accident. On May 8, 2012, Brittany Nelson, Sharon Myres' only child from a previous marriage, filed suit pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-106 to recover for her mother's wrongful death; she also asserted a claim for damages pursuant to section 20-5-113 ("the Nelson suit"). Ms. Nelson named Mr. Myres and Mr. Bennett as defendants. The day after the Nelson suit was filed, Charles Myres filed suit, individually and as surviving spouse of Sharon Myres ("the Myres suit"), naming Mr. Bennett as defendant and alleging, inter alia, that Mr. Bennett's actions were the sole cause of the accident and death of Sharon Myres. A third suit was filed by Mr. Groves and his wife, Stacy Groves ("the Groves suit"); this suit named Charles Myres, Mr. Bennett, and other entities as defendants.[1] In due course, Ms. Nelson moved to consolidate her suit with the Myres suit, and the trial court entered an order consolidating the cases, along with the Groves suit, on July 19, 2012. Thereafter the parties filed numerous amendments to their complaints and answers.

         The complaint in the Nelson suit alleged that Mr. Myres' and Mr. Bennett's negligence, negligence per se, and willful, wanton, and reckless conduct caused the death of her mother, and that Mr. Myres was "disqualified" from bringing the action "because his felonious actions caused the decedent's death."[2] Mr. Myres answered, asserting as affirmative defenses that "the negligence of Sharon G. Myres relating to the incident in question exceeds any negligence on the part of the Defendant Charles W. Myres, " thereby barring her recovery, as well as comparative fault on the part of Mr. Bennett. In his answer to the Nelson suit, Mr. Bennett denied that his conduct was the cause of Sharon Myres' death and pled the doctrine of sudden emergency, specifically, that "the purported Defendant, Charles W. Myres while driving at a very high rate of speed tried to run this Defendant off of the road." After the Adenus entities were added as defendants in the Nelson suit, they filed an answer admitting, inter alia, that on the date of the accident, Mr. Myres was employed by Adenus Operations, LLC, and was operating a vehicle owned by Adenus Utilities Group, LLC; they asserted as an affirmative defense that, if either of the Adenus defendants was held at fault, "its fault . . . should be compared against the fault of Plaintiffs and/or against Defendant Justin Bennett."

         In his suit, Mr. Myres sought to recover for his wife's wrongful death, as well as his loss of consortium and services.[3] Even though Mr. Bennett was named as the only defendant, numerous answers were filed. On June 2, 2012, Allstate Insurance Company, stating that it had been "served as the alleged uninsured/underinsured carrier, " filed an answer in the Myres suit (number 2012-CV-572). The record shows that on July 23, 2012, an answer was filed in case 2012-CV-572 by Westfield Insurance Company, stated to be "the uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier." The record also shows that on August 14, 2012, an "Answer To Charles Myres Complaint" was filed under docket number 2012-CV-567 by Mr. Bennett.[4]

         As noted in footnote 1, the initial complaint in the Groves suit is not part of the record on appeal. The record contains an answer filed by Mr. Bennett, which asserts, inter alia, the affirmative defenses of sudden emergency and comparative fault.[5] After being added as defendants, the Adenus entities answered, raising the comparative fault of Mr. Bennett as an affirmative defense. An answer was also filed by Charles Myres, likewise raising, inter alia, the affirmative defense of the comparative fault of Mr. Bennett.

         The Adenus entities and Westfield Insurance Company filed a joint motion to dismiss Ms. Nelson's complaint for failure to state a claim for relief, asserting that Charles Myres "has the superior right to bring an action for [Sharon Myres'] wrongful death, that he has done so, and that . . . Ms. Nelson has no right or standing to pursue her action." Mr. Myres filed a motion to dismiss on the same ground. Ms. Nelson subsequently filed a motion to intervene in the Myres suit, to disqualify Mr. Myres and substitute herself as plaintiff in his suit, and "for a misjoinder or non-joinder of this action severing the wrongful death case of Sharon Myres from the injury case of Charles Myres pursuant to Rule 21 of the Tennessee Rules [of] Civil Procedure."[6]

         After a hearing, the court dismissed Ms. Nelson's complaint, concluding that Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-106 "contemplate[s] only one cause of action for wrongful death" and "[Ms.] Nelson's claim must yield to the claim of the decedent's surviving spouse." The court considered Ms. Nelson's motions to be pretermitted. Pursuant to Rule 54.02 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, the court designated the order as a final order, and Ms. Nelson appeals. Stated succinctly, the question we resolve is whether, under the circumstances presented, Charles Myres retains priority to prosecute the action for Sharon Myres' wrongful death.

         II. Standard of Review

         This case was resolved upon a Rule 12.02(6) motion for dismissal for failure to state a claim. The standard of review we employ was explained by ...


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