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Spires v. Simpson

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

December 27, 2017

KENNETH M. SPIRES ET AL.
v.
HALEY REECE SIMPSON ET AL.

          Session May 9, 2017

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for Monroe County No. V 10 359 S J. Michael Sharp, Judge.

         We granted permission to appeal in this case to clarify when two Tennessee statutes would apply to preclude a parent who owes child support arrearages from recovering proceeds from a wrongful death lawsuit. In this case, the plaintiff and the decedent were married and had one child; the plaintiff abandoned the decedent and their son soon after the child was born. The plaintiff and the decedent never divorced. The decedent spouse died unexpectedly, and soon afterward the plaintiff surviving spouse filed this wrongful death action. At the time, the plaintiff surviving spouse owed child support arrearages for four other children unrelated to the decedent. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff surviving spouse from the wrongful death lawsuit based on a provision in Tennessee's wrongful death statutes, Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-107(b) (2009 & Supp. 2017), and a similar provision in Tennessee's intestate succession statutes, Tennessee Code Annotated section 31-2-105(b) (2015 & Supp. 2017). It held that these two statutes disqualified the plaintiff from filing the wrongful death action or recovering the proceeds from it because he never provided financial support for his child with the decedent spouse and because he had child support arrearages for his four children unrelated to the decedent spouse. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. It held that the two statutes did not bar the plaintiff from commencing the lawsuit for the wrongful death of his spouse, but it also held that they precluded him from recovering proceeds from the wrongful death lawsuit until his outstanding child support arrearages were satisfied. Consequently, the Court of Appeals ordered that the plaintiff's recovery from the wrongful death action be paid toward satisfaction of his child support arrearages for his four children who were unrelated to the decedent spouse. On appeal, we hold that the prohibitions in Tennessee Code Annotated sections 20-5-107(b) and 31-2-105(b) apply only when (1) the "parent" who seeks to recover in the wrongful death lawsuit is a parent of the decedent child, and (2) that parent's child support arrearage is owed for the support of that decedent child. Therefore, neither statute is applicable under the facts of this case. Accordingly, the decisions of the lower courts are reversed and vacated insofar as they applied those two statutes to this case. We affirm the Court of Appeals' holding that newly enacted wrongful death statutes regarding a surviving spouse's waiver based on abandonment of a decedent spouse may not be applied retroactively.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Affirmed in Part and Reversed and Vacated in Part; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Vacated; Case Remanded to the Circuit Court

          John W. Cleveland, Sr., Sweetwater, Tennessee, for the appellant, Major Dana Trent Hensley, Jr.

          Timothy A. Roberto and Ralph Brown, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Kenneth M. Spires.

          Holly Kirby, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., and Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          HOLLY KIRBY, JUSTICE.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Charity Felicia Spires and Plaintiff/Appellee Kenneth M. Spires married and had one child born during the marriage, a son named Uriah (born in March 2009). In April 2009, a month after Uriah was born, Mr. Spires abandoned Mrs. Spires and the child. Though Mr. and Mrs. Spires did not divorce, Mr. Spires never returned to the marital home. He did not contribute to the financial support of either his wife or his son, Uriah.

         In October 2010, when Uriah was about eighteen months old, Mrs. Spires died in a tragic automobile accident involving seventeen-year-old Defendant Haley Reece Simpson. The next month, in November 2010, the Juvenile Court of Monroe County awarded custody of Uriah to his maternal grandmother, Constance Ogle. Ms. Ogle also qualified as administrator of the estate of Mrs. Spires.

         On November 18, 2010, Mr. Spires filed this wrongful death lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Monroe County, Tennessee, against Ms. Simpson and her parents, alleging that their negligence resulted in the death of Mrs. Spires (hereinafter "Decedent"). Mr. Spires filed the complaint in his individual capacity and also as the representative of the Decedent and Uriah. The Simpson defendants denied liability. Discovery ensued.

         Over a year later, in March 2012, Ms. Ogle sought to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit by filing a "Motion to Intervene, to Appoint Guardian, to Dismiss Plaintiff[, ] and to Substitute New Plaintiff." In the motion, Ms. Ogle asserted that she should be appointed Uriah's guardian for purposes of the lawsuit and that she should be substituted as the representative plaintiff in Mr. Spires' stead. Ms. Ogle acknowledged Mr. Spires was the Decedent's surviving spouse. She argued, however, that he was disqualified from prosecuting the wrongful death lawsuit in his individual capacity and from recovering any proceeds in the lawsuit because he had failed to contribute any support for Uriah and because he owed child support arrearages to four other mothers for four other children. Ms. Ogle also alleged that Mr. Spires should be disqualified based on his abandonment of the Decedent.

         In August 2012, while Ms. Ogle's motion to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit was still pending, the Chancery Court of Blount County, Tennessee, entered an order of adoption, permitting the Decedent's brother, Captain (now Major) Dana Trent Hensley, Jr., M.D., to adopt Uriah. The adoption order terminated Mr. Spires' parental rights as to Uriah based on abandonment for failure to visit or support Uriah during the four-month period preceding the termination petition.[1] See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 36-1-102(1)(A), 113 (2017).

         In November 2013, even though the trial court had not yet entered an order on Ms. Ogle's motion to intervene, Mr. Spires filed a motion asking the trial court to dismiss her from the wrongful death lawsuit for failure to prosecute. Mr. Spires' motion asserted that he had agreed with Ms. Ogle to allow her to join the lawsuit as a plaintiff to represent the Decedent and Uriah but that he would not agree to dismissal of his individual claim.[2] He said in the motion that Ms. Ogle had since refused to correspond with him about moving forward with the lawsuit on those terms. Mr. Spires asked the trial court to dismiss Ms. Ogle from the lawsuit and allow it to proceed with him as the sole plaintiff.

         In March 2014, after Major Hensley had become Uriah's adoptive father, he and Ms. Ogle filed a joint response to Mr. Spires' motion in the wrongful death lawsuit. Concomitantly, they asked the trial court to permit both Major Hensley and Ms. Ogle to intervene in the lawsuit. They jointly asked the trial court to substitute Major Hensley to represent the interests of Uriah and to substitute Ms. Ogle, as administrator of the Decedent's estate, to represent the Decedent. As in Ms. Ogle's initial motion to intervene, Ms. Ogle and Major Hensley jointly argued that Mr. Spires was disqualified from prosecuting the wrongful death action or from recovering any proceeds from the lawsuit because he had abandoned the Decedent and had failed to support either the Decedent or Uriah prior to the Decedent's death.

         In June 2014, the trial court conducted a hearing in the matter. At the hearing, counsel for the Simpson defendants announced that their insurance company, Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Company ("Tennessee Farmers"), and all other parties had agreed to settle the matter for insurance policy limits of $100, 000. Tennessee Farmers said it was prepared to tender the $100, 000 to the trial court to be divided in any manner the court determined.[3] The parties told the trial court they had agreed to accept the $100, 000 settlement regardless of the outcome of the other issues pending before the court.

         At the same hearing, Mr. Spires stipulated to an assertion in Ms. Ogle's initial motion to intervene-that he has four children (other than Uriah) by four other mothers unrelated to the Decedent. He further stipulated that he was under child support orders as to the other four children and owed child support arrearages in amounts totaling almost $72, 000: $15, 945; $27, 590; $14, 865; and $13, 532.[4] It was undisputed that there had never been a formal child support order requiring Mr. Spires to pay child support for Uriah, and in fact he had never paid any support for Uriah.

         The intervenors argued at the hearing that Mr. Spires' failure to support Uriah or satisfy the child support arrearages for his other four children disqualified him from prosecuting the wrongful death action under Tennessee Code Annotated section 20-5-107(b) (2009 & Supp. 2017). They argued as well that, under Tennessee Code Annotated section 31-2-105(b), Mr. Spires was precluded from recovering any proceeds from the wrongful death lawsuit, regardless of the identity of the named plaintiff. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-105(b) (2015 & Supp. 2017). In addition, the intervenors contended that, pursuant to statutes enacted after the Decedent's death, Mr. Spires' abandonment of the Decedent was deemed a waiver of his right to file a lawsuit asserting the wrongful death of the Decedent. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 20-5-106(c), 107(e), and 110(c) (2009 & Supp. 2017). For all of these reasons, the intervenors asked the trial court to dismiss Mr. Spires' individual claim and substitute them as plaintiffs on behalf of the Decedent and Uriah. Because the underlying wrongful death lawsuit had been settled, both intervenors asserted that Uriah was entitled to the entire $100, 000 in insurance proceeds paid into court.

         In response, Mr. Spires argued that he, as the Decedent's surviving spouse, is entitled to prosecute the wrongful death action unless he waives his right or is statutorily disqualified from bringing suit. He argued that the wrongful death statutes in effect at the time of the Decedent's death did not preclude him from prosecuting the lawsuit, they only barred him from "recovering" any proceeds until he satisfied his child support obligations. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(b). Mr. Spires did not dispute that he was precluded from recovering any proceeds from the lawsuit until he satisfied his child support arrearages, so his half of the $100, 000 in wrongful death proceeds "would not be paid to him, they would be paid towards these child[ ] support arrearages." At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court took the matter under advisement.[5]

         On March 12, 2015, the trial court granted the intervenors' motion; it dismissed Mr. Spires from the lawsuit and substituted Ms. Ogle and Major Hensley as plaintiffs on behalf of the Decedent and Uriah, respectively.[6] The trial court agreed with the intervenors' interpretation of the statutes and held that Mr. Spires was disqualified from either prosecuting the wrongful death lawsuit or recovering any of the settlement proceeds because he never contributed to Uriah's financial support and still "owe[d] substantial arrearages and court-ordered child support payments for his other children with other women." The trial court held that Uriah was the proper party to recover for the wrongful death of his mother and that Major Hensley was the proper party to represent the minor Uriah in this regard. The trial court ordered that the $100, 000 in settlement proceeds be held in trust for the use and benefit of Uriah. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(b) (granting the trial court discretion to authorize the placement of a minor's recovery from a wrongful death action in trust for the benefit of the minor). In light of its holding that Mr. Spires was disqualified from prosecuting the wrongful death lawsuit, the trial court denied his request that his attorney fees be paid from the proceeds of the lawsuit.[7] Mr. Spires appealed.

         The Court of Appeals reversed.[8] Spires v. Simpson, No. E2015-00697-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 1697832, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2016), perm. app. granted (Tenn. Sept. 22, 2016). It held that, although Section 20-5-107(b) prohibits a surviving spouse with outstanding child support debt from recovering in a wrongful death action until his child support obligations are satisfied, it does not disqualify the surviving spouse from commencing and maintaining a wrongful death action. Id. at *7. The appellate court also addressed newly enacted statutes that prohibit a surviving spouse from bringing a wrongful death action for the death of his spouse if the surviving spouse had abandoned the deceased spouse. The Court of Appeals held that those statutes were not applicable because they were not in effect at the time of the Decedent's death and were not intended to apply retroactively. Id. at *11. Because Mr. Spires was not statutorily disqualified from bringing the action, the Court of Appeals held that he was the proper plaintiff and that Mr. Spires and Uriah were each entitled to half of the settlement proceeds ($50, 000 each) under the laws of intestate succession. Id.

         The Court of Appeals then went further. Although it had held that Mr. Spires was entitled to half of the proceeds of the wrongful death lawsuit, the appellate court also determined that Mr. Spires could not recover any of those proceeds for his own benefit "until his child support obligations, plus applicable interest, are paid." Id. (quoting Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(b)). Based on Mr. Spires' stipulation that he owed almost $72, 000 in child support for four other children, the appellate court determined that Mr. Spires' entire portion of the lawsuit proceeds had to be paid towards his outstanding child support obligations through the Child Support Receipting Unit. Id. According to the Court of Appeals, "Mr. Spires's one-half portion of the wrongful death settlement will now benefit his other children while [Uriah] receives the one-half portion due him as the Decedent's only child."[9] Id. at *12.

         Mr. Spires filed a petition to rehear on the issue of his attorney fees. He argued that, because the Court of Appeals had held that he was entitled to prosecute the wrongful death action, he was entitled to recover his attorney fees from the proceeds of the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals denied the petition to rehear because Mr. Spires had not raised the issue of his attorney fees in his initial appeal, despite ample opportunity to do so.

         We granted Major Hensley's application for permission to appeal.

         Issues on Appeal and Standard of Review

         In this appeal, Major Hensley argues that Mr. Spires is statutorily disqualified from maintaining this wrongful death lawsuit. In addition, regardless of the identity of the named plaintiff, Major Hensley contends that Mr. Spires is precluded from recovering any of the proceeds from the wrongful death lawsuit. In response, Mr. Spires argues that he is entitled to bring the wrongful death lawsuit for the death of the Decedent and that the statutes upon which the lower courts relied are not applicable in this case. Alternatively, Mr. Spires claims that the Court of Appeals was correct in holding that he is entitled to half of the settlement proceeds, even if his share must go to pay his outstanding child support arrearages.

         The issues on appeal in this case require the interpretation of statutes. Such issues present questions of law, subject to de novo review with no presumption of correctness in the lower courts' decisions. Beard v. Branson, 528 S.W.3d 487, 494-95 (Tenn. 2017); State v. Johnson, 79 S.W.3d 522, 526 (Tenn. 2002); Browder v. Morris, 975 S.W.2d 308, 311 (Tenn. 1998).

         Analysis

         A. ...


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