Spires v. SimpsonAnnotate this Case
Charity Spires and Plaintiff-Appellee Kenneth Spires married and had one child, Uriah. A month after Uriah was born, Kenneth abandoned Charity and the child. Though the Spires did not divorce, Kenneth never returned to the marital home. Charity died in an automobile accident involving Defendant Haley Simpson. Custody of Uriah was awarded to his maternal grandmother, Constance Ogle, who served as administrator of Charity's estate. Kenneth filed this wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson and her parents. Ogle sought to intervene. While she acknowledged Kenneth was the Decedent's surviving spouse, Ogle argued he should be disqualified from prosecuting the lawsuit because he owed child support arrearages, and because the abandoned the Decedent and Uriah. While Ogle’s motion to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit was still pending, a Chancery Court 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 Kenneth's parental rights as to Uriah. Ultimately the trial court granted the motion to intervene, dismissed Kenneth from the suit and substituted Ogle and Major Hensley as plaintiffs. Kenneth appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that as the surviving spouse, Kenneth was not disqualified from commencing and maintaining the wrongful death action, notwithstanding the child support obligation. Because Kenneth was not statutorily disqualified from bringing the action, the Court of Appeals held that he was the proper plaintiff and that Kenneth and Uriah were each entitled to half of the settlement proceeds under the laws of intestate succession. Based on Kenneth's stipulation that he owed almost $72,000 in child support for four other children, the appellate court determined that his entire portion of the lawsuit proceeds had to be paid towards his outstanding child support obligations through the Child Support Receipting Unit. The Tennessee Supreme Court held the prohibitions in Tennessee Code Annotated sections 20-5-107(b) and 31-2-105(b) were intended to apply only to cases in which the “parent” who seeks to recover in a wrongful death lawsuit was a parent of the decedent child, and the child support arrearage is owed for the support of that decedent child. Neither statute was applicable under the facts of this case. Consequently, the Court reversed and vacated the decisions of the trial court and the Court of Appeals applying Sections 20-5-107(b) and 31-2-105(b) in this case. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
Authoring Judge: Justice Holly Kirby
Trial Court Judge: Judge J. Michael Sharp
We 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 retroactively.