Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co. – Rightful Claimants in Wrongful Death

The untimely death of a father in a traffic crash, leaving behind three young children, gave rise to a wrongful death claim that insurers sought to deny. The defendants (the at-fault drivers and two insurers) argued the children had no right to make a claim because the man’s long-estranged wife had been denied compensation, and therefore the children (from another union) were not entitled to a set-aside from her.
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The Wisconsin Supreme Court, in weighing the case of Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., found this to be a serious misinterpretation of the law, bordering on “absurd.”

Our Fort Lauderdale wrongful death lawyers know that while there are statutory hurdles to making such a claim, courts are still inclined to make such decisions on a case-by-case basis. This is important, considering that families today don’t always follow the traditional nuclear model upon which legal theory is often based.

Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, codified in Florida Statutes 768.16-768.26, is first and foremost to be applied “liberally,” according to the legislature, with the intent of serving as a means of remediation for those who have suffered the devastating loss of a loved one, particularly if the claimants were financially dependent on the decedent. The term “survivors” is defined as the decedent’s surviving spouse, children, parents and other wholly dependent persons, including blood relatives and adoptive siblings. Children born out of wedlock are also considered to have a claim of action.

In the Force case, the question was whether minor children could recover damages for the wrongful death of their father when the decedent was survived by an estranged wife who was denied the right to seek compensation by the court.

Here, the decedent was married, but had retained minimal contact between the separation in 1997 to his death in 2008. In the meantime, he had three children with another woman, though he never divorced his wife.

In 2008, he was killed when another driver drove left of center, resulting in a collision.

His estranged wife filed suit against the driver and two insurance companies, seeking compensation. The circuit court found she was precluded from recovering any damages because of her long-term estrangement from the decedent. Her recovery amount was set to zero. The court also sided with the defense argument that because the wife was entitled to nothing, the children were not entitled to any set-aside amount from her recovery.

The state supreme court reversed, finding that, when based on the defendants’ reasoning, the result – to deny minor children the ability to collect compensation for a deceased parent’s wrongful death – was “absurd,” “unreasonable” and contrary to the legislative intent of the statute. Regardless of the surviving spouse’s standing to collect, the children had a rightful claim of action in the case, the court decided.

There, too, wrongful death statutes are to be applied “liberally,” in these cases, meaning those with a reasonable claim should not be denied the opportunity to have their case heard.

Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:
Force v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., July 18, 2014, Wisconsin Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
3rd DCA Denies Vicarious Liability for Those Aiding in Defense, July 24, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Death Lawyer Blog