Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. – Pursuing a Wrongful Death Claim

In cases of wrongful death in Alabama, state legislators have limited the ability to file to the individual acting as the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate. From there, any damages awarded will be distributed among legitimate claimants, which can include a spouse, minor children, adult children, parents and other dependents.

Disputes among family members regarding distribution of these funds is common, whether occurring with the personal representative of the estate or, in other states that allow individual family members to bring wrongful death claims, at the trial level. In either scenario, it’s a matter for the courts to decide, and having an experienced Montgomery wrongful death attorney to help guide you through the process can be invaluable.

In the recent case of Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., the Wisconsin Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether the guardians of minor children of a deceased man were entitled to collect damages for wrongful death, even though his estranged spouse was not permitted to make a recovery under the law.

In Wisconsin, the courts follow a hierarchical scheme in determining who is eligible to pursue and collect damages on wrongful death actions. Generally, the spouse is given priority, followed by the children, parents and then any other dependents.

In this case, the decedent was killed in an auto accident caused by the alleged negligence of another driver. Subsequently, the man’s estranged wife filed a wrongful death action seeking damages. However, the two had separated nearly a decade before the man’s death, and he paid her no support during that time. Although the pair never legally divorced, he went on to have three children with another woman.

The court found the estranged wife was not entitled to seek wrongful death benefits, as there was no interaction, affection or support between the two for many years prior to his death.

According to the hierarchy of benefits established by that state’s wrongful death statutes, surviving spouses are first in line, with benefits to minor children being paid out of that amount.

Using this line of reasoning, the defendant and insurance companies argued the minor children were not entitled to any benefits, as the surviving spouse was entitled to nothing, so therefore, the children could not collect either.

The state supreme court rejected this logic, ruling that the result would be “unreasonable” and even “absurd,” as it was contrary to the legislative intent in wrongful death cases. The unique circumstances in this case, the court found, were grounds to allow the courts to sidestep the benefits hierarchy and allow the guardians to pursue benefits on behalf of the children.

Although the specific statutes applicable to this case won’t govern the outcome of wrongful death cases here in Alabama, this ruling is indicative of how the courts are adapting to the ever-changing makeup of the American family, which increasingly deviates from the traditional, nuclear model.

Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.

Additional Resources:
Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., July 15, 2014, Wisconsin Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Loyacono v. Travelers Insurance Company – Prejudicial Statements Result in Remand of Crash Case, July 7, 2014, Montgomery Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog

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