Helen Graham died in March, 2010. Helen had seven children including a daughter, Betty Asbury. Helen’s estate filed a wrongful death suit against Raleigh General Hospital, alleging that the hospital’s negligent care and treatment led to her death. After suit was filed, Betty also died.
Eventually, the wrongful death suit was settled and an agreement was reached to distribute the proceeds among the six surviving children. Initially, the trial court approved the settlement. Thereafter, the executor of Betty’s estate objected, claiming that Betty was a wrongful death beneficiary and that she was entitled to a share of any proceeds. The court entered a new order on October 21, 2013, finding that Betty was indeed a “surviving” child for purposes of W.Va. Code 55-7-6 and, therefore, was entitled to participate in the proceeds of the settlement. Helen’s estate petitioned for appeal.
Under W.Va. Code 55-7-6, the proceeds of a wrongful death case are to be distributed, among others, to the “surviving…children” of the decedent. To be entitled to a share of the proceeds, must a child be living at the time the wrongful death settlement is reached, approved and distributed?
In analyzing this issue, the Supreme Court was guided by the familiar rules of statutory interpretation. The most important of these was that the wrongful death act itself is remedial in nature. Accordingly, it must be “given a liberal construction to achieve its beneficent purposes.”
With this in mind, the Court examined the relevant language of the wrongful death act. The Court noted that the act creates two categories of wrongful death beneficiaries. The first category includes those who enjoyed a close familial relationship with the decedent (e.g., the “surviving” spouse, children, etc.). The second category includes those who were financially dependent on the decedent. This category specifically indicates that the financial dependency must have existed “at the time of the decedent’s death.”
Petitioner argued that because the first category did not include any qualifying language, their right to recover wrongful death proceeds did not vest at the time of the decedent’s death. Instead, their right was subject to change until the time that the proceeds were actually distributed. The Court rejected this interpretation, finding that it was the Legislature’s intent to treat both categories “in equal manner.” This was consistent with the remedial purpose of the wrongful death act and also insured that the identity of all beneficiaries was “ascertainable and fixed at the time of the decedent’s death.”
This result was also supported by Adams v. Sparacio, 156 W.Va. 678, 196 S.E.2d 647 (1973). In Adams a beneficiary died while a wrongful death case was still pending. Adams held that the beneficiary’s rights “did not abate with…death,” and that the beneficiary’s estate was entitled to recover any wrongful death proceeds on the beneficiary’s behalf.
The outcome in this case was not surprising. After all, the wrongful death act is remedial in nature. The court’s ruling here insures that both categories of wrongful death beneficiaries are given equal footing. It also promotes clarity and ease of administration because the beneficiaries can be readily identified and are not subject to change over time.