Pro Se Wrongful Death Cases are Null and Void in Tennessee

Posted on April 5th, 2016 by sutteroconnell

In Beard v. Branson, No. M201-01770-COA-R3-CV, which you can read here, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee recently clarified that wrongful death cases brought by pro se plaintiffs are a legal nullity.  The case involved a colon surgery which resulted in complications, causing the death of Ruth Hartley.  Her surviving spouse filed a pro se wrongful death action on her behalf.  Eventually, Mr. Hartley retained counsel and filed an amended Complaint prepared by his attorney.

The defendants filed motions to dismiss. The argument:  the Tennessee Wrongful Death Statute, T.C.A. § 20-5-106, only permits wrongful death actions on behalf of the deceased.  Since the claim belonged to his wife, Mr. Hartley was acting in a representative capacity, but without a license to practice law.  Because the suit constituted unauthorized practice of law, it was a legal nullity.  The statute of limitation ran before counsel filed the amended complaint.

The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, the case proceeded to trial, and a total of $750,000 (the statutory cap for noneconomic damages) was awarded against the defendants.  The defendants appealed, making the arguments asserted in their motions to dismiss.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding as follows:

Mr. Hartley was not a licensed attorney; therefore, he could not file a valid complaint that asserted claims on behalf of another individual without it being signed by a licensed attorney. The only complaint that was filed before the statute of limitations expired in this action was the pro se complaint filed by Mr. Hartley…because the pro se complaint asserted claims on behalf of another individual and was not signed by a licensed attorney, the filing of that complaint was a nullity.

The Court continued on to hold that the amended complaint eventually filed by Mr. Hartley’s attorney could not relate back to the filing of the original complaint, because the original complaint was a legal nullity. For this reason, the original complaint could not serve to toll the statute of limitations.

Anytime a pro se complaint comes through the door, looking for procedural irregularities is a priority.  One important question to consider is whether the pro se plaintiff is bringing claims on behalf of another, or on his or her own behalf.  Given the court’s holding in Beard, this issue is best addressed on behalf of a defendant after the statute of limitations has run