The Indiana Supreme Court held in its decision dated February 21, 2019 that the plaintiff’s claim for survivor damages “did not abate upon his death and was not dependent on the existence of an heir,” stressing that the case “demonstrates the enduring importance of drafting a will.”
The Indiana medical malpractice wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the husband of a woman who died due to complications with the administration of dialysis treatments. The husband’s Indiana medical malpractice wrongful death complaint sought two categories of damages contemplated by Indiana’s wrongful death statute: damages related to medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses and additional damages including loss of consortium, lost earnings and wages, and loss of additional employment benefits.
During the litigation, the husband died intestate, leaving no immediately ascertainable heirs. The defendants moved for partial summary judgment on the husband’s claim for damages related to loss of consortium, arguing that any damages in excess of medical, hospital, funeral, and burial expenses would be punitive in nature because the husband left no heirs. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment and the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed.
Indiana’s Wrongful Death Statute
Indiana’s wrongful–death statute lays out the general cause of action for when a wrongful act or omission causes the death of another. The statute allows the personal representative of the decedent to maintain an action against the alleged wrongdoer that caused the death “if the [decedent] might have maintained an action had he or he…lived.” Ind. Code § 34-23-1-1: “[D]amages shall be in such an amount as may be determined by the court or jury, including, but not limited to, reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses, and lost earnings of such deceased person resulting from said wrongful act or omission. That part of the damages which is recovered for reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expense shall inure to the exclusive benefit of the decedent’s estate for the payment thereof. The remainder of the damages, if any, shall, subject to the provisions of this article, inure to the exclusive benefit of the widow or widower, as the case may be, and to the dependent children, if any, or dependent next of kin, to be distributed in the same manner as the personal property of the deceased.”
The Indiana Supreme Court stated, “Simply put, any final–expense damages inure to the decedent’s estate for payment of reasonable medical, hospital, funeral and burial expenses, and any excess damages, including survivor damages, inure to the exclusive benefit of the widow or widower and any dependents.”
Indiana’s Survival Statute
Indiana’s survival statute provides: “If an individual who is entitled or liable in a cause of action dies, the cause of action survives and may be brought by or against the representative of the deceased party…” Ind. Code § 34-9-3-1(a). The statute also states: “An action under this chapter may be brought, or the court, on motion, may allow the action to be continued by or against the legal representatives or successors in interest of the deceased. The action is considered a continued action and accrues to the representatives or successors at the time the action would have accrued to the deceased if the deceased had survived.” Ind. Code § 34-9-3-1(b).
The Indiana Supreme Court stated, “As this Court has previously held, ‘the plain language of the survival statute tells us that a cause of action, once accrued, does not abate.'”
The Indiana Supreme Court stated, “Reading these statutes together [Indiana’s Wrongful Death Statute and Indiana’s Survival Statute], however, we see no indication in the text of either statute that [the husband’s] claim for survivor damages terminated upon his death simply because he had no heirs. A plain reading of the text confirms that the claim for survivor damages, once properly asserted, does not abate due to the death of the once-surviving spouse.”
The Indiana Supreme Court concluded: “We hold that [the husband’s] claim for survivor damages did not abate upon his death and was not dependent on the existence of an heir.”
Source James T. Horejs, James Harris, and Robert Horejs, as Co-Administrators of the Estate of Laura A. Shaner, Deceased v. Albert Milford, D.O., Case No. 19S-CT-97.
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