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Reversal: No heirs needed for estate to pursue survivor damages

February 22, 2019

The personal estate of a woman whose husband died intestate without heirs and while litigating a wrongful death suit could be able to claim survivor damages after the Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer to the estate's case and overturned two lower courts.

David Shaner filed a wrongful death suit following the death of his wife, Laura, against Dr. Albert Milford, St. Margaret Mercy Healthcare Centers, Inc., and TRC-Indiana, LLC, alleging 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, the loss of the reasonable value of her services, and the loss of love, affection, companionship, society and support and protection.

However, David died intestate and without heirs while the suit was pending, and the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a ruling finding that the estate’s personal representative could not claim survivor damages. The health care providers argued Laura’s estate should be limited to the final-expense damages outlined in the wrongful death statute, while her estate countered that it should be able to pursue David’s survivor damages under the Supreme Court decision in Bemenderfer v. Williams, 754 N.E.2d 212 (Ind. 2001). The COA disagreed with the latter argument.

But Indiana Supreme Court justices reversed the Court of Appeals’ ruling Thursday, finding David’s claim for survivor damages did not abate upon his death and was not dependent on the existence of an heir. But while noting that neither the relevant statues – specifically, the wrongful death and survival statutes – nor Bemenderfer required an heir for such a claim to survive the death of a party, the high court was also unconvinced the proper party was before the court to continue David’s damages claim. Thus, the justices remanded James T. Horejs, James Harris, and Robert Horejs, as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Laura A. Shaner, Deceased v. Albert Milford, D.O., et al.,19S-CT-97.

First, the high court found that the relevant statutes did not preclude an action for survivor damages and that Bemenderfer did not change that result.

“While it is true there was an immediately identifiable heir in Bemenderfer, there is no language in that opinion that would suggest our Court read a requirement of a surviving heir into the otherwise facially clear wrongful death and survival statutes,” Justice Steven David wrote for the panel, declining to make an exception to the central holding of Bemenderfer.

“…After all, a wrongful death action is ‘entirely a creature of statute,’” David continued, quoting Durham ex rel. Estate of Wade v. U-Haul, 745 N.E.2d 755, 758 (Ind. 2001). “Because the plain language of the wrongful death and survival statutes require that a properly-accrued claim does not abate, we hold that David’s claim for survivor damages could have survived regardless of the existence of an heir.”

The high court further noted that it was still unsure as to whether Laura’s estate was the right party to make the wrongful death claim.

“We note that the key difference between Bemenderfer and today’s decision is that the daughter in Bemenderfer was appointed as a personal representative of the husband’s estate and the wife’s estate,” David wrote. “This position allowed her to continue the husband’s claim for survivor damages on behalf of the husband’s estate after his death. Here, only Laura’s estate is before our Court.”

Thus, the high court remanded for the trial court to consider whether a proper party exists to continue the claim that David’s estate would be eligible to be reopened.

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