As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I sometimes have the solemn and important responsibility of helping families sue over a wrongful death. A wrongful death is any death caused by someone else’s negligence; that includes crimes, but also anything that the victim might sue over if he or she were still alive. Under state laws, however, not just anyone can sue for a wrongful death; the person bringing the suit must usually be a close family member or the person handling the deceased person’s will. In Jacquith Nursing Home v. Yarbrough, a nursing home being sued over the wrongful death of Walter Yarbrough objected that his niece, Nellie Andrews, did not have the right to sue. The home moved to dismiss the case, but the estate of Yarbrough’s brother Spencer Yarbrough moved to substitute, and the trial court permitted it. The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed this ruling.
Walter Yarbrough had a severe mental impairment that made him dependent on care for a lifetime. His family cared for him until 1976, when he moved into the Jacquith Nursing Home of the Mississippi State Hospital. He died there in 2002, of causes not described in the opinion, but in a way that gave rise to a wrongful death claim by Andrews, who had handled his affairs just before his death. The initial 2002 filing named Andrews as Yarbrough’s personal representative, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she was appointed administrator of the estate. The home cited this in its 2008 motion to dismiss, saying Andrews lacked standing to sue as a niece or, in 2002, as an administrator. In response, the estate of Spencer Yarbrough, who had died in 2007, moved for a substitution. The trial court ultimately decided to deny summary judgment to the nursing home and grant the substitution, thus denying the home’s attempt to end the case.
On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed, finding that Andrews was an “interested party” under state law, and thus entitled to bring the original action. Caselaw from the same court found that a wrongful death action may be brought by “all interested parties” who are heirs at law of the deceased person. This includes parties not expressly listed as heirs by the Mississippi wrongful death statute. Andrews was an heir at law of Walter Yarbrough; this was confirmed by the court that appointed her administrator of his estate. There were no higher-priority heirs in this case because Walter Yarbrough never married or had children. Thus, Andrews was permitted to file the original suit. Furthermore, the court noted, though Andrews had incorrectly stated that she was the personal representative for Yarbrough before he died, she had a good-faith belief that she was. She was playing that role on behalf of her uncle Spencer Yarbrough, who had been incapacitated. Thus, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court.
Though the question of standing to sue may seem like a side issue compared to the actual claim against the nursing home, it’s actually vital. If the court had decided she had no standing to sue, it would have ended the case–regardless of the merits of the claim against the nursing home. As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I am sure that was the goal of the nursing home. Nursing homes do not like to let juries hear stories of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse, because when the facts are out, juries are often horrified at the conditions that led to the claimed injuries. As a result, they’re willing to spend a lot of time and money fighting seemingly inconsequential battles. Part of my job as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer is to ensure that such inconsequential questions don’t end the case before its merits can be heard.
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