Thursday, October 27, 2016

Suing Yourself In Utah: Not An "Overwhelming Absurdity"

Interesting decision from the Utah Supreme Court involves an heir who negligently caused a death who was obligated to institute litigation against herself in a personal capacity

we hold that the court of appeals did not err when it concluded that the wrongful death and survival action statutes permit a person acting in the legal capacity of an heir or personal representative to sue him or herself in an individual capacity for negligently causing a decedent‘s death or injury. The plain language of both statutes permits such a lawsuit. Further, the literal terms of the statutes do not lead to an absurd result that would require us to modify the statutory text. And absent a statutory gap, we will not venture beyond the plain language of the statutes to rewrite them based upon public policy.

The sad story

Barbara Bagley is the common law wife of the decedent, Bradley Vom Baur. On December 27, 2011, Ms. Bagley and Mr. Vom Baur were travelling in a 2000 Range Rover. Ms. Bagley lost control of the Range Rover and flipped the vehicle. Mr. Vom Baur was thrown from the vehicle and sustained several severe injuries. Paramedics transported Mr. Vom Baur to a local hospital for treatment. Ten days later, on January 6, 2012, Mr. Vom Baur died from the injuries he sustained in the accident.

Ms. Bagley maintained a motor vehicle insurance policy with State Farm Insurance Company. To compel State Farm to indemnify her, Ms. Bagley, in her dual capacities as sole heir and personal representative of the estate of Bradley Vom Baur (Plaintiffs), brought this suit against herself as an individual (Defendant)...Plaintiff Bagley, as Mr. Vom Baur‘s heir, brought her first cause of action pursuant to Utah Code section 78B-3-106, Utah‘s wrongful death statute, alleging that Defendant negligently caused Mr. Vom Baur‘s death, thereby depriving his sole heir of Mr. Vom Baur‘s love, companionship, society, comfort, care, protections, financial support, pleasure, and affection. Plaintiff Bagley, as the personal representative of Bradley Vom Baur‘s estate, brought her second cause of action pursuant to Utah Code section 78B-3-107, Utah‘s survival action statute, alleging that Defendant negligently caused Mr. Vom Baur to experience pain and suffering prior to his death, which entitles Mr. Vom Baur‘s estate to damages such as funeral expenses and medical bills. 

The conflicts issue is dealt with in a footnote

The [Utah Defense Lawyers] Association submitted novel arguments about the impact this case could have on our adversarial system and our Rules of Professional Conduct. The Association argues, inter alia, that this lawsuit distorts the attorney-client relationship by creating a concurrent conflict of interest because "defense counsel‘s representation of the client as the defendant is directly adverse to defense counsel‘s representation of that same person who is also the plaintiff." This concurrent conflict, the Association further argues, strains an attorney‘s ability to communicate with his or her client, because "a lawyer shall not communicate about the subject of the representation with a person the lawyer knows to be represented by another lawyer in the matter, unless the lawyer has the consent of the other lawyer." (quoting UTAH R. PROF‘L CONDUCT 4.2(a)). Conversely, communications in the other direction, from client to attorney, are also hampered, according to the Association, because the client knows that anything she reveals will be used against her. Relatedly, the Association raises concerns about jury confusion and the ability of an attorney to cross-examine his own client.

These arguments are not without merit but they must ultimately fail. This suit does not create a concurrent conflict. Plaintiffs and Defendant act in different legal roles. Any concern that Ms. Bagley will withhold information from defense counsel that is adverse to the estate‘s recovery is tempered by Ms. Bagley‘s requirement to cooperate with her insurer under their insurance agreement and the district court‘s inherent powers to manage discovery and ensure that defense counsel obtains relevant, probative evidence necessary to defend against Plaintiffs‘ causes of action. Similarly, concerns about jury confusion and cross-examination at trial are alleviated by the district court‘s ability to oversee the prosecution of this lawsuit in a manner that will mitigate these issues. Though this lawsuit raises novel issues regarding the attorney-client relationship and the prosecution of a lawsuit, these issues are manageable and do not create an overwhelming absurdity that requires us to rely on our absurdity doctrine to reform the wrongful death and survival action statutes.

The trial court had granted defendant's motion to dismiss.

The court here agreed with the Court of Appeals that the case can go forward. (Mike Frisch)

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