It may sound like the plot to the newest movie to be considered for an award for “Best Comedy,” but the Utah case of Bagley v. Bagley, wherein Barbara Bagley is suing herself is very real. The case was dismissed in January of 2014 in district court, but it was taken to the Utah Court of Appeals, which found on Feb. 12 that the survival action and wrongful death statutes do not bar Bagley from suing herself regarding the accident that killed her husband.
Bagley Accuses Self of Wrongful Death
According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, on Dec. 27, 2011, Bagley and her husband were driving their Range Rover in the desert 17 miles east of Battle Mountain, Nevada. Mrs. Bagley was behind the wheel of the vehicle when she hit a large sagebrush. It is unclear if Bagley attempted to avoid the sagebrush, but whatever the reason, the Range Rover flipped upside down and ejected her husband. The 55-year-old suffered severe injuries and died a little over a week later—Jan. 6, 2012—at the Battle Mountain General Hospital.
As the heir and personal representative of the estate of her late husband, Bagley is suing herself as the driver of the vehicle for the wrongful death of her husband. Bagley’s original suit claimed that she was negligent for failure to maintain a proper lookout for potential obstacles in the road as well as failure to keep her vehicle in proper control.
The interests of the driver Bagley are being representing by her insurance carrier. The estate Bagley is suing driver Bagley for an unspecified amount of money for damages, including medical expenses, funeral expenses, loss of past and future financial support, the physical pain her husband suffered before he died, and her mental anguish at the loss of his love and companionship.
Can She Really do That?
In January of 2014, Third District Judge Paul Maughan dismissed the case, stating that “the language of the wrongful death and survival action statutes prevents a tortfeasor from seeking recovery from herself and that the plaintiffs therefore could not bring suit against the defendant.”
However, in a 3-0 ruling, the Utah Court of Appeals stated that those statutes do not in fact bar Bagley from seeking damages against herself. The question came down to semantics, specifically the definition of the phrase “of another” in the two statutes.
The wrongful death statute reads as follows: “When the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another, his heirs, or his personal representatives for the benefit of his heirs, may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death.”
The survival statute reads: “A cause of action arising out of personal injury to a person, or death caused by the wrongful act or negligence of another, does not abate upon the death of the wrongdoer or the injured person.”
According to attorneys for the driver Bagley, the heirs or personal representatives cannot sue themselves if they were the cause of the death or personal injury. However, the appeals court found that “of another” simply meant someone other than the deceased or injured party.
Attorneys for the estate Bagley claim that as a responsible heir and personal representative for the estate, she really had no other choice than to initiate the lawsuit against herself, saying that she is legally obligated to pay off creditors before she could get any money from the estate.
On the other side of the issue, attorneys for driver Bagley say this would cause confusion to a potential jury. “The jury would be asked to determine how much money will fairly compensate Barbara Bagley for the harm she caused herself,” the attorneys stated in a motion to dismiss the suit. “The jury will be highly confused—it cannot order a person to compensate herself.”
However, it wasn’t the job of the Utah Court of Appeals to decide the final outcome of the litigation, just whether it should be allowed to proceed according to the wrongful death and survival action statutes. Their decision was to “reverse the dismissal of plaintiffs’ causes of action and remand for further proceedings.”
Even though that was their finding, they mentioned other legal issues which may ultimately affect the outcome of Bagley v. Bagley and other potentially similar future cases involving the wrongful death statutes. The first was in regards to heir Bagley also being appointed the personal representative for the estate. A Utah law regarding estates does not allow for spouses “alleged to have contributed to the death of the decedent” to be appointed personal representatives. However, that issue was not before the court. Nor was Utah’s comparative fault statute brought up in either the district of appeals court. This statute limits the ability of the plaintiff to recover when they bear some fault for the death or injury.
As of Tuesday, Feb. 17, attorneys for driver Bagley hadn’t made a decision as to whether they were going to appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.