387 P.3d 1000 (Utah 2016), 20150182, Bagley v. Bagley

Docket Nº:20150182
Citation:387 P.3d 1000, 2016 UT 48
Opinion Judge:DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE
Party Name:BARBARA BAGLEY, as the sole heir of the deceased BRADLEY M. VOM BAUR; and BARBARA BAGLEY, as personal representative of the estate of BRADLEY M. VOM BAUR, Respondent, v. BARBARA BAGLEY, Petitioner
Attorney:Peter H. Christensen, Jennifer R. Carrizal, Kathryn T. Smith, Salt Lake City, for petitioner. Reid Tateoka, Mark C. Rose, Cameron J. Cutler, Salt Lake City, for respondent. David S. Bridge, Anna Nelson, Salt Lake City, for amicus Utah Defense Lawyers Association.
Judge Panel:CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT authored the opinion of the court, in which ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE DURHAM, JUSTICE HIMONAS, and JUDGE KAY joined. Having recused himself, JUSTICE PEARCE did not participate herein; SECOND DISTRICT COURT JUDGE THOMAS L. KAY sat.
Case Date:October 27, 2016
Court:Supreme Court of Utah
 
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Page 1000

387 P.3d 1000 (Utah 2016)

2016 UT 48

BARBARA BAGLEY, as the sole heir of the deceased BRADLEY M. VOM BAUR; and BARBARA BAGLEY, as personal representative of the estate of BRADLEY M. VOM BAUR, Respondent,

v.

BARBARA BAGLEY, Petitioner

No. 20150182

Supreme Court of Utah

October 27, 2016

         Released for Publication February 6, 2017.

          Third District, Salt Lake. The Honorable Paul G. Maughan. No. 130903840.

         Peter H. Christensen, Jennifer R. Carrizal, Kathryn T. Smith, Salt Lake City, for petitioner.

         Reid Tateoka, Mark C. Rose, Cameron J. Cutler, Salt Lake City, for respondent.

         David S. Bridge, Anna Nelson, Salt Lake City, for amicus Utah Defense Lawyers Association.

         CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT authored the opinion of the court, in which ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE DURHAM, JUSTICE HIMONAS, and JUDGE KAY joined. Having recused himself, JUSTICE PEARCE did not participate herein; SECOND DISTRICT COURT JUDGE THOMAS L. KAY sat.

          OPINION

         DURRANT, CHIEF JUSTICE

         Introduction

          [¶1] This case is about whether a person acting in the capacity of sole heir and personal representative of an estate can sue him or herself as an individual for damages under the wrongful death and survival action statutes. Barbara Bagley, in her capacity as sole heir and personal representative of her deceased husband's estate, argues that these statutes permit her to sue herself as an individual for negligently causing her husband's death. Through this suit, Ms. Bagley hopes to secure certain insurance money for herself as heir and to satisfy creditors of her common law husband's estate. The district court dismissed her lawsuit, concluding that the plain language of the statutes and certain public policies precluded a person from simultaneously acting as plaintiff and defendant in a wrongful death or survival action suit, regardless of the capacity in which that person was acting. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the statutes unambiguously allow Ms. Bagley to maintain this lawsuit. We agree with the court of appeals. We also note that the public policies cited by the district court (policies that Ms. Bagley in her individual capacity invokes on appeal) deal with the separate issue of whether an heir or personal representative who is negligent in his or her individual capacity and is permitted to sue for damages under the wrongful death and survival action statutes can, nevertheless, as an heir recover money paid as damages from such a suit. That issue is not before us on appeal.

         Background

          [¶2] Barbara Bagley is the common law wife of the decedent, Bradley Vom Baur. On December 27, 2011, Ms. Bagley and Mr. Vom Baur were travelling in a 2000 Range Rover. Ms. Bagley lost control of the Range Rover and flipped the vehicle. Mr. Vom Baur was thrown from the vehicle and sustained several severe injuries. Paramedics transported Mr. Vom Baur to a local hospital for treatment. Ten days later, on January 6, 2012, Mr. Vom Baur died from the injuries he sustained in the accident.

          [¶3] Ms. Bagley maintained a motor vehicle insurance policy with State Farm Insurance Company.1 To compel State Farm to indemnify her, Ms. Bagley, in her dual capacities as sole heir and personal representative of the estate of Bradley Vom Baur (Plaintiffs), brought this suit against herself as an individual (Defendant) on June 7, 2013.2 Plaintiff Bagley, as Mr. Vom Baur's heir, brought her first cause of action pursuant to Utah Code section 78B-3-106, Utah's wrongful death statute, alleging that Defendant negligently caused Mr. Vom Baur's death, thereby depriving his sole heir of Mr. Vom Baur's love, companionship, society, comfort, care, protections, financial support, pleasure, and affection. Plaintiff Bagley, as the personal representative of Bradley Vom Baur's estate, brought her second cause of action pursuant to Utah Code section 78B-3-107, Utah's survival action statute, alleging that Defendant negligently caused Mr. Vom Baur to experience pain and suffering prior to his death, which entitles Mr. Vom Baur's estate to damages such as funeral expenses and medical bills.

          [¶4] In response, Defendant filed a rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. She argued that the plain language of the previously referenced statutes prevents a person from suing him or herself, thereby barring Plaintiffs' (Bagley as both heir and personal representative) claims. Defendant attempted to reinforce this statutory argument by citing cases from foreign jurisdictions that have precluded a person from bringing suit against him or herself based on comparative negligence principles and public policy.

          [¶5] Without a hearing, the district court by minute entry ruled in favor of Defendant. The district court concluded that " [t]he plain reading of the [wrongful death] statute indicates that the heir/personal representative and the 'person causing the death' cannot be one and the same" and " a wrongdoer who is the heir and/or personal representative of decedent cannot bring a survival action against him or herself for special or general damages." The court also concluded that the plain language of the statutes, which preclude a wrongdoer from suing, comported with Utah's public policy considerations.

          [¶6] Plaintiffs appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the district court's ruling, holding that " [t]he plain language of the wrongful death and survival action statutes does not bar an heir or personal representative from pursuing those causes of action even when the heir or personal representative is the defendant tortfeasor." 3 The court of appeals thus concluded that " [t]he district court . . . erred by dismissing those causes of action." 4 We granted a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision.

         Standard of Review

          [¶7] The issue on appeal is whether the court of appeals correctly interpreted sections 78B-3-106 and 78B-3-107 of the Utah Code as allowing a person acting in the legal capacities of an heir and personal representative to sue him or herself as a defendant tortfeasor for damages. The appropriate interpretation of these statutes is a question of law that we review for correctness.5 Because this case arises from a rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, we accept the facts set forth in the complaint as true.6 This court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(a).

         Analysis

          [¶8] The court of appeals correctly concluded that the wrongful death statute and the survival action statute allow a person to act as an heir or personal representative to sue him or herself as an individual defendant for damages. Contrary to Defendant's argument, interpreting the statutes in this manner does not lead to a result so overwhelmingly absurd that we must (pursuant to our absurdity doctrine) modify the statutory language to prevent such a lawsuit. Further, we decline Defendant's invitation to look beyond the plain language of the statutes to identify the legislature's intent in relation to the statutes. The statutes unambiguously apply to the circumstances of this case and permit Plaintiffs to sue Defendant. Public policies and related statutes cited by Defendant speak more directly to the separate issue of whether a defendant tortfeasor who is permitted to bring suit as an heir or personal representative of an estate can recover insurance money paid as damages in a wrongful death or survival action suit. This is a question we do not reach on this appeal. As we discuss below, Defendant's failure to distinguish between these separate issues--the first, an issue of statutory interpretation; the second, an issue of ultimate recovery of damages--has caused unnecessary confusion in her arguments. We therefore distinguish between these issues, affirming the court of appeals' decision while remanding to permit further litigation on the issue of recovery.

         I. Neither the Wrongful Death Statute nor the Survival Action Statute Precludes a Person Acting in the Capacity of an Heir or Personal Representative from Suing Him or Herself as an Individual for Negligently or Wrongfully Causing a Decedent's Injury or Death

          [¶9] Defendant argues that the plain language of Utah's wrongful death statute (Utah Code section 78B-3-106) and survival action statute (Utah Code section 78B-3-107) precludes an heir or personal representative from bringing suit against him or herself for damages. Plaintiffs argue that neither statute precludes a person from simultaneously acting as a plaintiff heir or personal representative and defendant tortfeasor. Like the court of appeals, we agree with Plaintiffs. The literal language of the aforementioned statutes permits a lawsuit like the one currently before this court.

          [¶10] The " primary objective" of statutory interpretation...

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