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Determining the “Surviving Spouse” – At the Time of Injury or Death?

If you have lost a loved one due the negligence of another person, the last thing you need is to be bombarded with questions about the status of your relationship with the deceased. Last month, the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Florida clarified this issue in a written opinion in Domino’s Pizza v. Wiederhold, discussing when a plaintiff qualifies as a “surviving spouse” for a wrongful death lawsuit.

The court explored the tragic case of an engaged couple that married after a disastrously life-altering car accident. The plaintiff was a passenger in a vehicle with her then-fiancée, who was forced to swerve into a median when a vehicle owned by a Domino’s franchisee suddenly pulled out in front of them. The car overturned a few times before coming to final rest in a ditch. The accident immediately left the man a quadriplegic, while the woman was unharmed. A month after the accident the man sued Domino’s, the franchisee owner, and the driver of the franchisee’s vehicle. The couple subsequently moved forward with their commitment and married before the man died a year later due to accident-related injuries. After her husband passed away, the woman was substituted as the plaintiff and filed an amended complaint to include a claim for wrongful death damages.

The defendants in this case argued that the plaintiff was not entitled to compensation as a “surviving spouse” because she was not married to the decedent at the time of the car accident. Under Fla. Stat. § 786.21, a “survivor” may recover, among other things, the value of lost support and services, the loss of the decedent’s companionship and protection, and for mental pain and suffering. The issue in this case was: did the plaintiff count as a “surviving spouse” under the meaning of the statute even though she wasn’t married to the decedent at the time of the accident? The court of Appeals ultimately decided that her status as a “surviving spouse” was determined at the time of her husband’s death, rather than the initial injury.

In deciding this matter, the court looked to various factors that are often employed in determining the meaning of a statute. First, the Court considered the dictionary definition of the word “survivor,” which is “a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.” The key word here was “died” because one cannot be a “survivor” without a death. The court then looked at other cases which determined that survivorship of a child is determined at the time of death and extended this rationale to the plaintiff. Finally, the court invoked the wisdom of courts in other states that interpreted statutes that were similar to Florida’s wrongful death statute. Those courts, too, decided that the date of death determines whether a plaintiff is considered a “surviving spouse.”

In summary, although the plaintiff was not married to the decedent at the time of the accident, she was still considered a “surviving spouse” due to their marriage at the time of death.  This determination by the appellate court has substantial meaning throughout the gamut of Florida tort law, including medical malpractice claims wherein a surviving spouse might be necessary to bring the lawsuit forward.

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or killed due to the negligence of another driver, the experienced personal injury attorneys at The Grife Law Firm are here for you. Call The Grife Law Firm toll-free at (855) 998-0770 for a free consultation.