KENNETH M. SPIRES ET AL.
HALEY REECE SIMPSON ET AL.
Session May 9, 2017
by Permission from the Court of Appeals Circuit Court for
Monroe County No. V 10 359 S J. Michael Sharp, Judge.
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
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
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.
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.
and Procedural Background
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
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.
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.
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.
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. See Tenn. Code Ann. §§
36-1-102(1)(A), 113 (2017).
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. 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.
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
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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. 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. Mr. Spires appealed.
Court of Appeals reversed. 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.
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." Id. at *12.
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.
granted Major Hensley's application for permission to
on Appeal and Standard of Review
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.
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).