When someone dies due to the negligence of another person, the victim’s family may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Such a lawsuit seeks compensation for the survivors’ loss, such as medical expenses, lost wages, lost companionship, and funeral expenses. However, many surviving family members are unaware that they can sue to obtain financial compensation from any responsible party that is negligent, causing death. This is so, even if the responsible party is also a beneficiary of wrongful death proceeds; the circumstance that is currently making news in the Utah court system.
The Utah Court of Appeals has ruled that a woman can proceed with a lawsuit against “herself” in the wrongful death of her husband. Barbara Bagley was driving the couple’s Range Rover in 2011 when the vehicle slid on some sagebrush in the highway and flipped. The accident threw her husband, Bradley Vom Baur, from the vehicle. He sustained serious injuries and died two weeks later in the hospital.
The lawsuit claims that Bagley was negligent for not keeping control of her vehicle and for “failing to maintain a proper lookout” while driving. Her attorney said she is pursuing the lawsuit for the benefit of her husband’s estate; creditors will have to be paid before the widow receives any leftover money. She is her husband’s only heir.
For clarification purposes, the plaintiff in this case is “The Estate of Bradley Vom Baur”; the defendant is Barbara Bagley. Bagley is the heir and representative of the estate and seeking compensation from “Driver” Bagley’s insurance carrier for negligence to cover medical and other expenses resulting from the accident. An insurance company is representing “Driver” Bagley and defending the lawsuit. Rather than show appropriate compassion and responsibility, the carrier (the company that has profited and received premiums from this unfortunate couple for years) argues the wrongful-death suit is improper; a person should not be allowed to “sue herself” for damages that he/she caused. A privately retained attorney represents the Estate of Bradley Vom Baur.
The controversy centers on each side’s view of the phrase “of another” to determine which heirs or personal representatives of an estate can sue for damages. Utah law allows any passenger to recover damages against the driver if the driver was negligent in the accident. The language in the wrongful death law states that heirs are permitted to sue when the death of someone is caused “by the wrongful act or neglect of another.” The appeals court said that “of another” means someone other than the deceased person. This means that as personal representative of her husband’s estate, Bagley is permitted to sue “herself” as the “another” who caused the death of her husband.
Various reports are circulating in and around the state of Utah portraying this unfortunate woman as someone who is trying to profit from her own negligence. It is, in fact, a heartbreaking story, and it is the suspicion of this writer that the reports of “profit-seeking” are being circulated by insurance and tort reform lobbyists who seek to assure that insurance companies keep insurance premiums paid to carriers while limiting benefits payouts to citizens (Heaven forbid that an insurance company actually pay a claim that premiums were paid to support!).
It is not unusual for the person in the passenger seat to know or be related to the driver; it is, in fact, the norm rather than the exception. Here is my core issue: If a negligent driver kills a stranger, the stranger would most likely sue. The insurance company would defend and pay the claim, especially with an admission of negligence by the driver and the death of the stranger. Here, where the driver admits negligence, recovery is challenged simply because the victim is known to, or a relative of, the driver. Why? What difference does it make to the insurance company that has received premiums for years and accepted the risk? The negligent driver should be held accountable and the insurance company should pay the claim, regardless who is the plaintiff.
At one time, “family immunity” laws made it impossible to sue a family member for wrongful death. If a couple was in an auto accident due to driver (the wife) negligence and resulted in the passenger’s (husband) death, surviving family members of the deceased could not sue to collect damages. The rule left injured victims without compensation for their medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering and other damages. It also left family members of deceased victims without any compensation for their losses. As a result, many states have abolished family immunity laws in whole, or in part. Today, almost everywhere, one can sue a relative for negligent driving, regardless of how close or distant the family member may be.
When states began to eliminate family immunity doctrines, some insurance companies responded by including “household exclusion” clauses in auto policies. Such clauses precluded family members from suing and collecting from an insurance policy for wrongful death caused by another family member. Some states, however, prohibit insurance companies from including these clauses, while other states allow enforcement only for amounts that exceed a statutory minimum recovery.
While the pro-business and pro-insurance lobbyists want you to believe that this is, somehow, “controversial”, the truth of the matter is that this couple paid substantial premiums under an automobile insurance policy for financial protection in case of an unfortunate serious or fatal accident. If “Driver Bagley” was in an accident with a total stranger, her insurance company would pay under the policy. That is what insurance is for. The policy doesn’t say “but you must injure or kill a stranger.” Why shouldn’t an insurance carrier do for her what it would readily do for a stranger?
The sad truth is there is no amount of compensation that can bring her husband back. Filing a lawsuit often rectifies a wrongdoing and allows the woman to receive insurance proceeds to help lessen an economic burden caused by this tragedy. The case belongs to the estate of the deceased husband. The estate is suing the negligent party for the wrongful death of the deceased. Had there been a disinterested or less interested party appointed as representative of the estate, and that party had brought suit, there would be no “unjust lawsuit” arguments being proffered.
Bottom line, this is a simple insurance claim in which a woman lost her husband due to driver negligence and should not be denied compensation that any other widow of a similar wrongful death would receive. Any other result would be unjust enrichment for an insurance companies and we all know that they don’t need more riches.
Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.