There can be any number of reasons for hesitation to act following the death of family member—grief, numbness, ignorance of the procedures involved, etc. When in mourning, even the most mundane processes may be far out of mind, supplanted by feelings of loss and spiritual exhaustion. In the case of a wrongful death, resentment may either suppress or spur action. In either case, however, efforts to recover from a painful bereavement are often frustrated by the complexity of the laws that necessarily define negligence and how it is to be treated.
Few wrongful death cases are so cut-and-dried as to render their treatment entirely intuitive, even to someone who is familiar with the laws…and the laws are ever-changing. Further, proving negligence runs up against greater opposition when the stakes are higher. Even if the intricacy of civil procedures is not daunting to the seeker after compensation, the prospect of rehashing sensitive material with someone who is naturally eager to defend their name is a disheartening one, indeed.
Anything resembling an FAQ list will, of course, be incomplete. Hopefully, though, some of the items listed below will enlighten those wanting information on the treatment of wrongful death cases in Utah:
1. The statute of limitations is not always set in stone.
There are circumstances under which the clock doesn’t start ticking immediately. Sometimes the heirs to a decedent do not know, cannot know, or cannot take action until after the technical statute of limitations (2 years in Utah) has expired. For instance, in Switzer v. Reynolds, the statute of limitations was tolled (deferred) until the dependent children of the decedent were hold enough to bring action against the appellee employer. In other cases, it may only come to light years later that negligence played a role in a person’s death. In such cases, it is likewise possible to sidestep strict adherence to the statute of limitations to accommodate extenuating circumstances.
2. Contracts entered into by the decedent to not always block action by survivors.
The court in Bybee v. Abdulla denied a motion by Dr. Abdulla to compel arbitration when his patient’s wife filed a wrongful death claim. Prior to his death, Mark Bybee had signed an agreement to arbitrate all legal actions, including personal injury claims. However, it was determined that his wife, Lisa Bybee, could not be held to a contract that she did not sign; and she was thus free to pursue compensation through other legal avenues.
3. Non-custodial parents can claim wrongful death compensation.
The custodial parents of a deceased boy in Moreno v. Board of Education filed a wrongful death claim without including the boy’s natural mother as an appellant. The Morenos, who had permanent custody and guardianship, further attempted to block Laura Bartlett from seeking damages, claiming that she was not really the party at interest. However, Utah Code 78-11-6.5 states that either the natural or adoptive parents may claim damages, provided the non-custodial parent’s rights have not been terminated. Ms. Bartlett’s parental rights were intact, and she was able to continue her suit against the school where her son drowned. (At the time of the trial in 1996, in fact, only Bartlett was entitled to damages as a biological parent; Utah legislation has since been amended.)
4. Multiple parties may be held responsible for a wrongful death.
According to Utah’s Comparative Negligence Act, the fact that a victim’s own conduct contributed to an accident does not exempt them from claiming compensation. Whether or not a person’s behavior is perfectly cautious or sensible, they can still be unduly affected by another’s negligence; and they are not to be denied compensation on grounds of carelessness and absentmindedness if that isn’t all that caused an accident. In addition, more than one party may be charged to the extent that they were accountable for the circumstances surrounding the incident. In high-cost accidents, this allows more options to the survivors and distributes the burden of blame more fairly.
5. Not all survivors must file the same suit.
In Overturf v. University of Utah Medical Center in 1999, the mother of a woman killed in a medical malpractice case was thwarted in her attempts to set aside a settlement arrived at by the Medical Center and her daughter’s husband because she was not a litigant when the deal was struck. Yet, as the woman’s mother, she had a legal right to seek compensation. The court found that “[i]f they have occasion to ask relief in relation to the matters involved, they must either contrive to obtain the status of parties in the suit or they must institute an independent suit.” Oxendine arrived too late to intervene in the claim filed by her son-in-law, but she was still allowed the option of seeking damages in a separate case.
For those who have other questions concerning wrongful death, the best bet is to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to find how the law is most likely to interact with their particular case. To contact wrongful death attorneys in the Salt Lake City area, you can call Christensen & Hymas at (801) 506-0800 for a legal consultation at no cost or request a free Wrongful Death booklet by calling 1-800-LAW-BOOK or visiting UtahAccidentBooks.com.