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Spires v. Simpson: The Supreme Court Clarifies Wrongful Death

Image: the Tennessee Supreme Court house

            In December 2017, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued the opinion on Spires v. Simpson, concerning a wrongful death lawsuit out of Monroe County, Tennessee. 

            In Spires, Mr. and Mrs. Spires were parents of a minor child, born in the spring of 2009.  One month after the child’s birth, Mr. Spires abandoned the family, though the parties did not divorce.  Mr. Spires did not provide any child support or financial support to Mrs. Spires.  In October 2010, Mrs. Spires was tragically killed in a car accident.  Following her death, custody of the Spires’ child was given to Mrs. Spires’ mother. 

            One month after Mrs. Spires’ death, Mr. Spires brought a wrongful death action against the driver of the vehicle in the accident that killed Mrs. Spires.  Both Mrs. Spires’ mother and brother sought intervention in the wrongful death accident, claiming that they, as custodians of the Spires’ child, were entitled to any wrongful death settlement, not Mr. Spires due to Mr. Spires having failed to pay any child support to Mrs. Spires for benefit of his child. 

            The trial court agreed with Mrs. Spires’ mother and brother, and held that Mr. Spires could not recover any amounts from the wrongful death lawsuit due to him owing back child support to Mrs. Spires and for benefit of four other unrelated children.  The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed in part, holding that while Mr. Spires was entitled to prosecute the wrongful death lawsuit; however, any recovery he received would be applied to his back child support arrearages on the children other than his child with Mrs. Spires. 

            The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed with both the trial court and the Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court held that the child support arrearage provisions at Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 31-2-105 did not apply in the Spires’ case, as Mr. Spires was prosecuting the wrongful death action as the surviving spouse of Mrs. Spires.  The Child Support Arrearage forfeiture provisions under Tennessee law only preclude a parent who is behind on child support from prosecuting a wrongful death action on behalf of a deceased child, when that parent owes child support for benefit of the deceased child.  The Supreme Court found that the purpose of the two forfeiture provisions was to prevent a parent behind on child support from financially benefitting from the wrongful death of a child the parent failed to support.    

            The Spires opinion clarifies the interpretation of who can bring a wrongful death action, and the Child Support Arrearage forfeiture provisions.  For more information, or to read the full opinion, visit http://tncourts.gov/courts/supreme-court/opinions/2017/12/27/kenneth-m-spires-et-al-v-haley-reece-simpson-et-al .

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