COA: Personal rep in estate case has no claim to survivor damages

After a man who filed a wrongful death suit for his wife died intestate and without heirs while the suit was pending, the Court of Appeals concluded the estate’s personal representative could not claim survivor damages.

David Shaner filed a wrongful death suit against Dr. Albert Milford, St. Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers, Inc., and TRC-Indiana, LLC, after his wife, Laura, died. In 2007, David alleged that the providers had been negligent in Laura’s care and caused her death. His claim for survivor damages under the wrongful death statute included the loss of Laura’s earnings, wages and benefits, loss of the reasonable value of her services, and the loss of love, affection, companionship, society and support and protection.

After David died with no heirs or will, Laura’s estate continued prosecuting the wrongful-death lawsuit, but the providers moved for partial summary judgment. They argued that any survivor damages would now be received by the state, therefore serving as punishment to the defendants who would not be compensated for suffering pecuniary losses as a result of the wrongful-death suit. The providers argued Laura’s estate should be limited to the final-expense damages outlined in the wrongful-death statute.

Laura’s estate argued that it should be able to pursue David’s survivor damages under the Supreme Court decision in Bemenderfer v. Williams, but the court disagreed, noting there was an heir in Bemenderfer who would have suffered a pecuniary loss.

“Laura’s Estate maintains that the Providers will “avoid accountability” if they don’t have to pay survivor damages,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote in James T. Horejs, James Harris, and Robert Horejs, as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Laura A. Shaner, Deceased v. Albert Milford, D.O., St. Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers, Inc., et al., 45A03-1709-CT-2173.  

 “That may be true, but it is consistent with the wrongful-death statute, which specifically contemplates that some fortunate defendants will not have to pay survivor damages. The legislature could change the statute so that all defendants are treated the same, but it has so far chosen not to do so.”

The court also found that the assertion by Laura’s estate suggests the court’s holding would give wrongful-death defendants an incentive to “continue and delay cases as long as possible with the hopes that the statutory beneficiary will die.” They concluded that would only be true if the statutory beneficiary had no heirs.

“Here, David could have created heirs — and kept the Providers on the hook for survivor damages — simply by executing a will,” Vaidik concluded. “He didn’t, so he has no heirs, and any survivor damages would pass to the state. That would be contrary to the compensatory purpose of the wrongful-death statute.”

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