We granted permission for this appeal to determine whether a surviving spouse who files a wrongful death lawsuit is acting as a legal representative of the decedent and whether a wrongful death lawsuit filed pro se by the surviving spouse is void ab initio based on the spouse’s pro se status. In this case, the decedent’s surviving spouse filed a pro se wrongful death health care liability lawsuit shortly before the one-year statute of limitations lapsed. After expiration of the limitations period, the spouse retained an attorney and filed an amended complaint. In the ensuing discovery, the defendants learned that the decedent had two daughters, both of whom were statutory beneficiaries in the wrongful death action. The defendants filed motions for summary judgment. They argued that the spouse’s initial pro se complaint was filed in a representative capacity on behalf of the decedent and the other statutory beneficiaries and that it was, therefore, void ab initio; thus, the filing of the amended complaint could not relate back to the date of the initial complaint, and the lawsuit was time-barred. The trial court denied the summary judgment motions and permitted the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the initial pro se complaint. It then conducted a jury trial; the jury found both defendants liable and awarded damages. The defendant hospital appealed the denial of summary judgment. Adopting the defendant’s argument, the Court of Appeals reversed. The plaintiff now appeals. Under the plain language of Tennessee’s wrongful death statutes, the decedent’s right of action “pass[es] to” the surviving spouse upon the decedent’s death, and the surviving spouse asserts the right of action for the benefit of himself and other beneficiaries. Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106(a) (2009 & Supp. 2016). Consequently, we hold that the surviving spouse did not file the initial pro se complaint as the legal representative of either the decedent or the decedent’s estate. As we construe our wrongful death statutes, in filing the pro se complaint, the surviving spouse was acting to a large extent on his own behalf and for his own benefit pursuant to his right of self-representation. Under the facts of this case, we hold that the initial pro se complaint was not void ab initio, it served to toll the statute of limitations, and the trial court did not err in allowing the filing of the amended complaint to relate back to the date of the initial complaint. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, affirm the trial court’s denial of summary judgment, and remand to the Court of Appeals for consideration of the other issues that were properly raised on appeal but not addressed.
Case Number: M2014-01770-SC-R11-CV
Originating Judge: Judge Robert E. Burch
Case Name: Linda Beard v. James William Branson, et al.
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