The Court of Appeals of Indiana (“Indiana Appellate Court”) stated in its opinion filed on June 14, 2018 that “This appeal presents the issue of what happens when one of the statutory beneficiaries enumerated in the statute (in this case, a spouse) survives the wrongful-death decedent but then dies himself while the wrongful-death action is still pending—that is, what happens when the survivor who would have collected the survivor damages has ceased being a “survivor”?”
Indiana’s general wrongful-death statute, Indiana Code section 34-23-1-1, establishes two categories of damages: “final-expense damages” and “survivor damages.” The statute provides that if the decedent is not survived by a spouse, dependent children, or dependent next of kin, the decedent’s personal representative can recover, on behalf of the decedent’s estate, only final-expense damages: medical expenses related to the decedent’s last illness or injury; funeral and burial expenses; and expenses of administering the estate and pursuing the wrongful-death action, including a reasonable attorney’s fee.
If the decedent is survived by a spouse, dependent children, or dependent next of kin, the decedent’s personal representative can recover both the final-expense damages on behalf the decedent’s estate and survivor damages, including lost earnings of the decedent, on behalf of the statutory beneficiary/ies.
In the case the Indiana Appellate Court was deciding, a husband filed a medical malpfractice wrongful-death action after the death of his wife but then died himself while the action was still pending. The husband died without a will and without any heirs, so that any survivor damages recovered on his behalf would ultimately pass (escheat) to the state.
The Indiana Appellate Court held: “Here, because [the husband] left no heirs, there is no one left who can say that they will receive a smaller inheritance—that they would suffer a “pecuniary loss”—if [the husband’s] claim for survivor damages is terminated … the purpose of the wrongful-death statute is to compensate for pecuniary loss caused by the death of the decedent, not to punish the defendant … Requiring the [defendants] to pay survivor damages in this case—damages that would simply pass to the state—would serve only to punish the [defendants].”
The Indiana Appellate Court noted “a statutory beneficiary can usually avoid having no heirs. Here, [the husband] could have created heirs — and kept the [defendants] on the hook for survivor damages — simply by executing a will. He didn’t, so he has no heirs, and any survivor damages would pass to the state. That would be contrary to the compensatory purpose of the wrongful-death statute.”
Source Horejs v. Milford, Opinion 45A03-1709-CT-2173.
If you may have a medical malpractice wrongful death claim in Indiana or in another U.S. state, you should promptly seek the advice of an Indiana medical malpractice lawyer, or a medical malpractice lawyer in your U.S. state, who may investigate your wrongful death medical malpractice claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice wrongful death case, if appropriate.
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