Utah Wrongful Death Statutes Allow Woman to Sue Self

woman sues self for wrongful deathIt 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.

Iron County Prosecutors Drop Ag-gag Charges, Law Examined

Utah ag-gag charges dropped

Photo: Matthias M/Wikimedia Commons

Four animal activists who were allegedly on private property at a hog farm in Iron County in September have been released from charges of Utah’s agricultural interference law, also known as an ag-gag law. The activists will still face criminal trespass charges, and many are wondering when it comes to ag-gag laws, why trespassing charges aren’t sufficient and exactly who these other laws are protecting. In the case of many animal rights activists, they believe it’s not necessarily who is being protected but a certain type of misbehavior that is being protected.

Ag-gag in Iron County

The four activists from California and Maryland were members of a group known as the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and the hog farm was Circle Four Farms, a part of Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of the world’s largest pork producer. According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, the attorney for the activists, T. Matthew Phillips, stated that the four wanted to document the pigs’ journey from the farm to a California slaughterhouse.

According to the FARM website, they are a nonprofit group that is “working to end the use of animals as food through public education and grassroots activism.” While they claim that most of their programs are aimed at engaging “likely target audiences … and [nudging] them along the vegan path,” they also state that “[o]ccasionally, we seek to capture media attention through dramatic displays.”

Attorney Phillips says the Circle Four Farms incident was not one of these examples of “dramatic display.” In fact, he states that the four were actually on a public roadway and were only capturing images of farm buildings, not of the workers or animals.

However, the wording of Utah’s ag-gag law 76-6-112 states that a person is guilty of agricultural interference if they knowingly or intentionally record “an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation” without the consent of the owner. The law specifies several acts that are prohibited, including leaving a recording a device on the premises, obtaining a job under false pretenses to record activity, recording activity as a regular employee of the facility, or trespassing on private property to get such images or sounds.

Given the fact that Iron County prosecutors are still charging the four activists with criminal trespass, they must differ with Phillips, however, Circle Four Farms stated that they didn’t wish to pursue the agricultural interference charges.

Ag-gag Under the Microscope and Put on Trial

Utah Rep. John G. Mathis (R-Vernal) sponsored HB 187 in 2012. The bill went through two revisions before being ultimately approved. According to an article in Deseret News, Mathis claimed the reason for sponsoring this bill was that he wanted to put an end to “animal-rights terrorists” out to destroy the agricultural industry. He was quoted as saying that animal protection groups such as FARM and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were using these investigations as propaganda to promote their own organizations, especially in fundraising efforts.

Opposition to the ag-gag laws—which are currently on the books in five other states—say these laws are violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They state that the First Amendment protecting free speech and press has specifically led to reform in the food industry in the past, citing such books as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which was pivotal in leading the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

If convicted of criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor per Utah Criminal Code 76-6-206, the four activists could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Of the six states with ag-gag laws, only one other person has been charged with violation of the law. In February of 2013, Amy Meyer was charged for videotaping the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper. However, charges against her were also dropped, with the reasoning cited as either public outcry or the fact that Meyer’s video footage showed that she was on public property at the time of her filming.

On a larger scale, in July of 2013, two national nonprofit organizations, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and PETA, filed a lawsuit against the State of Utah challenging the ag-gag law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Attorneys for the state attempted to argue that the case should be thrown out, however, according to an August 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby has refused.

Even though he didn’t dismiss the case, Shelby has said that at this point, the plaintiffs have failed to show how the statute has resulted in past injury as no one is currently being prosecuted under the statute or how it will cause future injury, but the case will still have its proverbial day in court which means it will have to stand up to further public scrutiny.

ABA, Utah Subcommittee Examine Criminal Justice System

ABA, Utah examines criminal justice system

Photo: Lonpicman/Wikimedia Commons

A task force created by the House Judiciary Committee in 2013 finished their study on the state of the United States’ criminal justice system in August of this year. The results of their hearings regarding how they believe the criminal justice system can be improved have recently been made public. At about the same time the federal task force was finishing their study, the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ) created a subcommittee to look at some of the same questions on a more local basis, specifically how to address Utah’s growing prison population.

ABA Pushes Criminal Justice System Reform

According to a report from the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal, in May of 2013, the House Judiciary Committee formed the Task Force on Over-Criminalization in response to an increasing number of federal crimes providing for prison sentences, including those cited by 2012-13 chair of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section William N. Shepherd which criminalize behavior that often lacks “criminal intent.”

One of the first witnesses to appear at the Task Force on Over-Criminalization’s first hearing in June 2013, Shepherd called the current criminal justice system, “overburdened, expensive, and often ineffective”.

Originally the task force was only supposed to hold hearings for six months, but at the behest of the ABA and other groups, the task force continued to hold hearings through August 2014, providing a forum for discussing over-criminalization issues.

According to the task force ranking member Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va, one of the problems is the extreme number of crimes resulting in criminal penalties, many of which the ABA believes would be better handled by civil fines or noncriminal sanctions. Scott reported more than 4,000 federal criminal provisions plus hundreds of thousands of federal regulations imposing criminal penalties. Other troubling statistics include:

  • The cost of housing one federal inmate has reached $29,000 per year
  • 75,579 prisoners are currently serving mandatory minimum sentences (another area being examined by the ABA House of Delegates)
  • 99,246 prisoners are currently serving prison time for nonviolent drug offenses

Another area examined by the task force is the proliferation of collateral consequences and discretionary disqualifications in the current criminal justice system. As discussed in the previous Wednesday post, Collateral Consequences Addressed by Website, Legislation, a collateral consequence as defined by the ABA House of Delegates is a “legal penalty, disability, or disadvantage, however denominated, that is imposed on a person automatically upon that person’s conviction for a felony, misdemeanor or other offense, even if it not included in the sentence.”

The ABA made news recently with their free state-by-state database of collateral consequences. For more about that database and collateral consequences, click here.

According to the House of Delegates, a discretionary disqualification is similar to a collateral consequence or sanction, however the civil court, administrative agency or official over the case in question is not required to impose the disqualification.

In both of these instances, the ABA House of Delegates created a set of standards in 2003 by which they hoped to limit such consequences and disqualifications, especially if they negatively impacted reintegration by a former prisoner into society after they served their time.

Martin Heck, a former chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section said that while some of these consequences serve important functions—such as keeping firearms out of the hands of violent offenders—others create more problems—such as denying professional occupational licenses.

In addition to these standards, the Clemency Project 2014 was also an effort aided by the ABA. The Clemency Project is an assemblage of lawyers and advocates from groups such as the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Clemency Project screens federal prisoners convicted on nonviolent crimes in past years who might have received shorter sentences if convicted today, and when qualified, they provide pro bono assistance to the prisoners in seeking clemency.

Utah Examines Different Aspect of Criminal Justice System

In addition to some of these issues looked at by the Task Force on Over-Criminalization, at the request of Utah Governor Gary Herbert, the subcommittee of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice also studied recidivism rates—the rates of committing repeat offenses—which is considered one of the biggest problems in the Utah criminal justice system contributing to the rapid growth of the prison population.

Many proponents of increased prison sentencing and longer terms claim the result is less repeat offenders, however, multiple studies have actually shown this to be the opposite.

The Utah subcommittee also found numbers consistent with national statistics when it came to nonviolent offenders serving time in Utah prisons, with 63 percent of new offenders being imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.

For more information on the Utah subcommittee and a study of recidivism, click here.