Circuit Court Could Not Appoint Representative for Deceased Defendant

When an alleged tortfeasor in a car accident case died before suit was brought, and plaintiffs failed to have an administrator properly named before the statute of limitations on their claim expired, dismissal of the case as a whole was affirmed, including dismissal in favor of plaintiffs’ uninsured motorist insurance carrier.

In Owens v. Muenzel, No. E2018-00199-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2018), plaintiffs were involved in a car accident with another driver on May 11, 2015, and the other driver died on November 14, 2015. Plaintiffs were not aware of his death and filed a personal injury suit against him on March 30, 2016 in circuit court. The summons to the driver was returned with a notation stating that he was deceased. On April 12, 2016, plaintiffs served their uninsured motorist (UM) carrier in the action, who answered by asserting that plaintiffs had not complied with the conditions of their insurance policy.

The deceased driver did not have a personal representative (and no estate was ever opened for him), so plaintiffs petitioned the trial court to appoint an administrator ad litem pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-1-109, which the court did. Later, in July 2017, the UM carrier moved for summary judgment on the basis that “(1) it could not be held liable as [plaintiffs’] [UM] carrier because [plaintiffs] failed to properly and timely bring an action against and serve with process either Deceased’s personal representative or properly appointed administrator ad litem prior to the running of the applicable statute of limitations and that (2) the order entered by the trial court appointing [an] administrator ad litem was void due to the circuit court lacking subject matter jurisdiction.” The circuit court ultimately agreed with both of these arguments, granting summary judgment to defendants, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The first issue here was whether the trial court, a circuit court, had the authority to appoint an administrator ad litem for the deceased pursuant to § 30-1-109, with the conclusion being that it did not. While this statute allows for the appointment of a personal representative in the case of the death of a defendant, “the Tennessee Supreme Court observed [in a previous case] that a circuit court was not a court authorized to appoint administrators ad litem.” (internal citation omitted). Thus, the order appointing the administrator ad litem was void.

Looking next to the statute of limitations, Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-110 provides the statute of limitations is extended by “the period of time between death and the appointment of the personal representative, up to six months following death.” (internal citation omitted). Because a personal representative was never appointed here, the additional time allowed would have been six months. In this case, the statute of limitations would have begun to run on the day of the accident, and the extension of time would have started on the day of the driver’s death, November 14, 2015. Six months later, on May 14, 2016, the remaining 179 days of the one-year statute of limitations would have started running, culminating on November 9, 2016. Because the administrator ad litem appointed by the circuit court was void, no representative was appointed before the statute ran, and thus plaintiffs could not maintain a claim against the deceased driver.

Because no claim could be maintained against the known alleged tortfeasor, the trial court ruled and the Court of Appeals affirmed that summary judgment was appropriate in favor of the UM carrier. The Court explained:

As [plaintiffs] allowed the cause of action against the tortfeasor to lapse by not properly serving the administrator ad litem, they are precluded from obtaining a recovery from the insurer as well. A plaintiff who fails to establish legal liability against a defendant tortfeasor cannot impose liability upon her uninsured motorist carrier for the acts of that same tortfeasor. Further, if the statute of limitations has run against the uninsured motorist, a direct action cannot be maintained against the uninsured motorist carrier.

(internal citations and quotations omitted).

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the circuit court should have transferred at least a portion of the case to the chancery court, but the Court of Appeals rejected this assertion. The Court noted that this case “sound[ed] in law seeking a monetary judgment,” meaning the circuit court had exclusive jurisdiction over it. Further, transfer was not appropriate “because the circuit court did not lack jurisdiction over the original action.” Finding that the court did not err in failing to transfer the case, summary judgment of the entire case was affirmed.

While this case is fairly fact-intensive, it is an instructive read for any attorney dealing with the death of a defendant, especially if that defendant has not had an estate opened. Failing to get a representative properly appointed can result in plaintiffs being unable to recover from either the alleged tortfeasor’s estate or their uninsured motorist carrier (if the case is based on a car accident).