Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies Law on Wrongful Death Lawsuits Filed by Parents Who Owe Child Support

December 27, 2017

In a case filed in Monroe County, the Tennessee Supreme Court clarified when Tennessee laws prevent a person who owes child support from receiving money damages from a wrongful death lawsuit. Those laws apply, the Court said, only when the person is a parent of the child who died, and the back child support is owed for that child.

In Spires v. Simpson, a married couple, Charity Felicia Spires and Kenneth M. Spires, had a son named Uriah, born in the spring of 2009. Within a month after Uriah was born, Mr. Spires abandoned his wife and child. They never divorced, but Mr. Spires never gave his wife any financial support for Uriah.

In October 2010, when Uriah was about eighteen months old, Mrs. Spires died in a tragic car accident involving seventeen-year-old Haley Reece Simpson. After the accident, a court gave custody of Uriah to his maternal grandmother.

About a month later, Mr. Spires filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Monroe County against Ms. Simpson and her parents. The lawsuit claimed that their negligence resulted in the death of Mrs. Spires, and asked the trial court to award money damages to Mr. Spires, for himself and on behalf of Uriah. The grandmother with custody of Uriah asked the court to allow her to intervene, that is, become a party to the lawsuit.

In the meantime, Mrs. Spires’ brother, Major Dana Trent Hensley, adopted Uriah. After that, Mr. Hensley also asked the trial court to let him intervene in the wrongful death case. Later, Ms. Simpson’s insurance carrier paid her policy limits, $100,000, into court as a settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit for Mrs. Spires’ death.

Both the grandmother and Major Hensley argued to the trial court that Mr. Spires should not be allowed to prosecute the wrongful death lawsuit or receive any of the money damages from it. They pointed to two Tennessee laws and argued that those statutes said a parent who owes child support cannot receive damages from a wrongful death lawsuit. Mr. Spires was never under a child support order for Uriah, because he and Mrs. Spires never divorced, but Mr. Spires owed almost $72,000 in back child support for four other children unrelated to Mrs. Spires.

The trial court agreed with the grandmother and Major Hensley. It dismissed Mr. Spires from the case and held that he could not receive any of the $100,000 settlement. The trial court said the Tennessee statutes disqualified Mr. Spires because he never paid any support for Uriah and because he owed substantial child support “for his other children with other women.” Mr. Spires appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court in part. It held that the statutes did not prevent Mr. Spires from prosecuting the wrongful death lawsuit. However, it held that the statutes required that Mr. Spires’ portion of the settlement proceeds had to be paid toward his back child support obligation for his children other than Uriah. The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted Mr. Spires permission to appeal.

The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court and also disagreed in part with the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court looked carefully at all of the wrongful death statutes, not just the two statutes pointed out by Uriah’s grandmother and Major Hensley. It even reviewed the discussion of the statutes by lawmakers when the legislature enacted the laws in 1994.

The Court observed that, in enacting the statutes, lawmakers intended the laws to apply to situations where a child has died, the parents are separated or divorced, and one parent owes the other parent child support for the deceased child. In that circumstance, the legislature intended to bar the parent who owed child support from benefitting financially from the wrongful death of the child he or she failed to support. That was the only purpose of the statutes.

The laws were not intended to apply to the situation in this case, the Court held, where a wrongful death lawsuit is filed by the surviving spouse of the deceased, and the surviving spouse happens to owe back child support for children not related in any way to the deceased spouse. They were not intended to require payment of wrongful death damages to children completely unrelated to the deceased person.

For this reason, the Court reversed the trial court and reversed part of the Court of Appeals’ ruling. It held that Mr. Spires was not disqualified from filing the wrongful death lawsuit for the death of Mrs. Spires, and he could also share in the settlement proceeds from the lawsuit. It also observed, however, that the guardians of the other children for whom Mr. Spires owed child support could use any other remedies to assert claims against Mr. Spires’ share of the settlement money.      

To read the unanimous opinion in Kenneth M. Spires et al. v. Haley Reece Simpson et al., authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the Opinions section of TNCourts.gov.