Estate of Bennett

Estate of Bennett, 2013 MT 230 (Aug. 20, 2013) (7-0) (Rice, J.)

Issue: Whether the Court should issue a writ of supervisory control over the lower court’s order holding that the Bennetts are not entitled to damages from the wrongful death of their adult son.

Short Answer: Yes. Wrongful death damages are personal to the survivors, and are not controlled by intestate succession statutes.

Writ granted

Facts: Jeremiah Bennett died intestate from injuries sustained in a car accident on Sept. 8, 2012. He is survived by two minor children and his parents, Abel and Judy Bennett. Sabrina, the mother of his children and his ex-wife, is the guardian and conservator for the children. This Court affirmed her appointment as PR in an interlocutory appeal. 2013 MT 228.

Sabrina petitioned the district court for a declaration that the Bennetts lack standing to claim wrongful death damages. Bennetts moved to intervene, conceding that they did not have a claim for lack of consortium under Hern v. Safeco, but arguing they could claim damages for grief, sorrow and mental anguish and that Sabrina, as the PR, had a fiduciary duty to advance those claims on their behalf.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held that the minor children are the sole heirs of the estate and therefore have priority over any wrongful death claims. The court granted Sabrina’s petition and denied Bennetts’ motion to intervene. Bennetts petitioned for supervisory control, and Sabrina responded. The Court grants Bennetts’ petition.

Reasoning: The Court first determines that supervisory control is warranted. Bennetts may not appeal the denial of their motion to intervene until after final judgment is entered. The parties are involved in complex settlement negotiations, from which Bennetts are excluded, and an appeal in Bennetts’ favor could invalidate the settlement.

Bennetts argue there is no requirement that a claimant for wrongful death damages be an heir. Montana does not statutorily define wrongful death claimants, but through the common law has identified survivors who may claim wrongful death damages, as well as the parameters of recovery. While a survival action belongs to the decedent’s estate, a wrongful death action seeks damages for the personal loss of the survivors. The distribution of such damages is not controlled by the decedent’s will or by the intestacy statutes. The PR brings the wrongful death action as well as any survival action under the one-action rule, and holds the proceeds of any damage award as trustee for the persons entitled to damages. If the action proceeds to trial and damages are awarded, the district court will apportion the wrongful death damages among the claimants.