In The Matter Of The Estate Of Larry Michael Johnson v. Johnson, No. S-09-0040.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
Writing for the CourtVOIGT
Citation2010 WY 63,231 P.3d 873
Docket NumberNo. S-09-0040.
Decision Date18 May 2010
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF Larry Michael JOHNSON, Deceased.Kelliann Johnson, Appellant (Respondent),v.Larry M. Johnson, Appellee (Petitioner).

231 P.3d 873
2010 WY 63

In the Matter of the ESTATE OF Larry Michael JOHNSON, Deceased.
Kelliann Johnson, Appellant (Respondent),
v.
Larry M. Johnson, Appellee (Petitioner).

No. S-09-0040.

Supreme Court of Wyoming.

May 18, 2010.


231 P.3d 874

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

231 P.3d 875
Representing Appellant: Matthew A. Bartlett of Bartlett & Webster, Riverdale, Utah.

Representing Appellee: V. Anthony Vehar of Vehar Law Offices, P.C., Evanston, Wyoming.

Before VOIGT, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, KITE, and BURKE, JJ.

VOIGT, Chief Justice.

[¶ 1] This is an appeal from a probate court order denying the petition of a decedent's wife (Wife) to revoke the appointment of the decedent's father (Father) as personal representative of the decedent for the filing of a wrongful death claim. Finding procedural error and an abuse of discretion in the denial of the petition, we reverse and remand for dismissal of the probate proceedings, and for such other and further proceedings that may be pursued by the parties.

ISSUES

[¶ 2] 1. Does Wife have standing to challenge the appointment of Father as personal representative of the decedent to file a wrongful death claim?

2. Does the probate code govern appointment of a personal representative under the wrongful death act?

3. If the probate code does not govern appointment of a personal representative under

231 P.3d 876
the wrongful death act, what does govern such appointment?
FACTS

[¶ 3] Larry Johnson (the decedent) died on March 10, 2008. On September 18, 2008, Father petitioned the probate court to be appointed as the decedent's personal representative for the purpose of filing a wrongful death claim. The probate court granted Father's petition by an order entered on September 22, 2008. Wife filed a petition seeking revocation of that appointment on October 15, 2008. The probate court heard Wife's petition on November 25, 2008, and denied it by an order entered on January 6, 2009.

DISCUSSION
Does Wife have standing to challenge the appointment of Father as personal representative of the decedent to file a wrongful death claim?

[¶ 4] Father did not raise below the question of whether Wife has standing to challenge his appointment as personal representative. Standing, however, is a jurisdictional issue, and it may be raised at any time. Halliburton Energy Servs., Inc. v. Gunter, 2007 WY 151, ¶ 10, 167 P.3d 645, 649 (Wyo.2007); Hicks v. Dowd, 2007 WY 74, ¶ 18, 157 P.3d 914, 918 (Wyo.2007).

“Standing” is short for “standing to sue,” which requires a “legally protectable and tangible interest at stake in the litigation.” Olsten Staffing Servs., Inc. v. D.A. Stinger Servs., Inc., 921 P.2d 596, 599 (Wyo.1996) (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 1405 (6th ed.1990)). The phrase “tangible interest” has been equated with the phrase “personal stake in the outcome.” Goshen Irrigation Dist. v. Wyo. State Bd. of Control, 926 P.2d 943, 947 (Wyo.1996) State ex rel. Bayou Liquors, Inc. v. City of Casper, 906 P.2d 1046, 1048 (Wyo.1995). The person alleging standing must show a “perceptible,” rather than a “speculative” harm from the action; a remote possibility of injury is not sufficient to confer standing Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Wyo. PSC, 2003 WY 22, ¶ 13, 63 P.3d 887, 894-95 (Wyo.2003).

Halliburton, 2007 WY 151, ¶ 11, 167 P.3d at 649. The question of standing is a legal issue that we review de novo. Northfork Citizens for Responsible Dev. v. Park County Bd. of County Comm'rs, 2008 WY 88, ¶ 6, 189 P.3d 260, 262 (Wyo.2008); Halliburton, 2007 WY 151, ¶ 10, 167 P.3d at 649.

[¶ 5] Father declares that Wife lacks standing to bring this appeal because Wife cannot prove that she will suffer any harm from Father's appointment as personal representative. Although we have said that “perceptible harm” is an aspect of the concept of standing, we have also used the phrases “personal stake in the outcome” and “tangible interest” in describing standing. Jolley v. State Loan & Inv. Bd., 2002 WY 7, ¶ 6, 38 P.3d 1073, 1076 (Wyo.2002). Under those standards, we have no trouble declaring that Wife has standing to challenge Father's appointment. Wife is not only, herself, a potential personal representative and claimant under the wrongful death act, and in first priority as a probate administrator-a factor that will be discussed in more detail below-but she is also the mother of the decedent's two daughters, who also are likely claimants under the wrongful death act. Given the complexities of a wrongful death action, and given the fact-also to be discussed in more detail below-that the personal representative under the wrongful death act acts as a trustee for the claimants, Wife certainly has a tangible interest in the determination of who will act as personal representative, and she has a personal stake in the outcome of the petition contest.

Does the probate code govern appointment of a personal representative under the wrongful death act?

[¶ 6] It is necessary at the outset of this discussion to identify the statutes that underlie the dispute. Title 2 of the Wyoming Statutes is entitled “Wills, Decedents' Estates and Probate Code.” Chapter 4 of Title 2, entitled “Intestate Succession,” provides the procedures for the administration of the estates of those who die without providing for the distribution of their property via a

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will. Because those who die intestate have not “made a will,” neither have they named an executor to administer their estate. Consequently, the legislature has provided a process for the appointment of the administrator of an intestate estate. As part of that process, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 2-4-201(a) (LexisNexis 2009) sets forth the order of preference the probate court is to follow in selecting the administrator:
(a) Administration of the estate of a person dying intestate shall be granted to one (1) or more of the persons mentioned in this section. The relatives of the deceased are entitled to administer only when they are entitled to succeed to his personal estate or some portion thereof. They are entitled to administer in the following order:
(i) The surviving husband or wife, or some competent person whom he or she may request to have appointed;
(ii) The children;
(iii) The father or mother;
(iv) The brothers or sisters;
(v) Repealed by Laws 1987, ch. 129, §§ 1, 2;
(vi) The grandchildren;
(vii) The next of kin entitled to share in the distribution of the estate;
(viii) The creditors;
(ix) Any person legally competent.

[¶ 7] The other legislative act that lies at the heart of this dispute is the wrongful death act, found not in the probate code, but in the civil code at Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-38-101 and 102 (LexisNexis 2009). The wrongful death act provides in relevant part as follows:

§ 1-38-101. Actions for wrongful death which survive; proceedings against executor or administrator of person liable.
Whenever the death of a person is caused by wrongful act, neglect or default such as would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action to recover damages if death had not ensued, the person who would have been liable if death had not ensued is liable in an action for damages....
§ 1-38-102. Action to be brought by personal representative; recovery exempt from debts; measure and element of damages; limitation of action.
(a) Every such action shall be brought by and in the name of the personal representative of the deceased person.
....
(c) The court or jury, as the case may be, in every such action may award such damages, pecuniary and exemplary, as shall be deemed fair and just. Every person for whose benefit such action is brought may prove his respective damages, and the court or jury may award such person that amount of damages to which it considers such person entitled, including damages for loss of probable future companionship, society and comfort.
....

[¶ 8] Inasmuch as this issue involves the intention of the wrongful death statute, we shall apply our customary standard of review:

In interpreting statutes, our primary consideration is to determine the legislature's intent. All statutes must be construed in pari materia and, in ascertaining the meaning of a given law, all statutes relating to the same subject or having the same general purpose must be considered and construed in harmony. Statutory construction is a question of law, so our standard of review is de novo. We endeavor to interpret statutes in accordance with the legislature's intent. We begin by making an inquiry respecting the ordinary and obvious meaning of the words employed according to their arrangement and connection. We construe the statute as a whole, giving effect to every word, clause, and sentence, and we construe all parts of the statute in pari materia. When a statute is sufficiently clear and unambiguous, we give effect to the plain and ordinary meaning of the words and do not resort to the rules of statutory construction. Wyoming Board of Outfitters and Professional Guides v. Clark, 2001 WY 78, ¶ 12, 30 P.3d 36, [41] (Wyo.2001);
231 P.3d 878
Murphy v. State Canvassing Board, 12 P.3d 677, 679 (Wyo.2000). Moreover, we must not give a statute a meaning that will nullify its operation if it is susceptible of another interpretation. Billis v. State, 800 P.2d 401, 413 (Wyo.1990) (citing McGuire v. McGuire, 608 P.2d 1278, 1283 (Wyo.1980)).
Moreover, we will not enlarge, stretch, expand, or extend a statute to matters that do not fall within its express provisions. Gray v. Stratton Real Estate, 2001 WY 125, ¶ 5, 36 P.3d 1127, [1128] (Wyo.2001); Bowen v. State, Wyoming Real Estate Commission, 900 P.2d 1140, 1143 (Wyo.1995).
Loberg v. Wyo. Workers' Safety & Comp. Div., 2004 WY 48, ¶ 5, 88 P.3d 1045, [1048] (Wyo.2004) (quoting Board of County Comm'rs of Teton County v. Crow, 2003 WY 40, ¶¶ 40-41, 65 P.3d 720, [733-34] (Wyo.2003)). Only if we determine the language of a statute is ambiguous will we proceed to the next step, which involves applying general principles of statutory construction to the language of the statute in
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12 practice notes
  • Skaf v. Wyo. Cardiopulmonary Servs., P.C., S-20-0266
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • September 27, 2021
    ...suffered a concrete and particularized injury. "The question of standing is a legal issue that we review de novo ." In re Est. of Johnson , 2010 WY 63, ¶ 4, 231 P.3d 873, 876 (Wyo. 2010). WCS’ argument rests on the first factor of Wyoming's long-established test for standing articulated in ......
  • Skaf v. Wyo. Cardiopulmonary Servs., S-20-0266
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • September 27, 2021
    ...suffered a concrete and particularized injury. "The question of standing is a legal issue that we review de novo." In re Est. of Johnson, 2010 WY 63, ¶ 4, 231 P.3d 873, 876 (Wyo. 2010). WCS' argument rests on the first factor of Wyoming's long-established test for standing articulated in Br......
  • In re Atws, S-20-0184
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 5, 2021
    ...and we construe all parts of the statute in pari materia ." Estate of Frank , ¶ 7, 432 P.3d at 887 (quoting In re Estate of Johnson , 2010 WY 63, ¶ 8, 231 P.3d 873, 877 (Wyo. 2010) ). [¶10] "A statute is clear and unambiguous if reasonable persons can agree on its meaning with consistency a......
  • Baessler v. Freier, No. S–10–0212.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • August 26, 2011
    ...case, “ stare decisis in respect to statutory interpretation has ‘special force’....” [258 P.3d 726] Alpine Lumber, 2010 WY 62, ¶ 12, 231 P.3d at 873 (quoting John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130, 139, 128 S.Ct. 750, 756, 169 L.Ed.2d 591 (2008)). [¶ 15] The underlying ra......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
12 cases
  • Skaf v. Wyo. Cardiopulmonary Servs., P.C., S-20-0266
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • September 27, 2021
    ...suffered a concrete and particularized injury. "The question of standing is a legal issue that we review de novo ." In re Est. of Johnson , 2010 WY 63, ¶ 4, 231 P.3d 873, 876 (Wyo. 2010). WCS’ argument rests on the first factor of Wyoming's long-established test for standing articulated in ......
  • Skaf v. Wyo. Cardiopulmonary Servs., S-20-0266
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • September 27, 2021
    ...suffered a concrete and particularized injury. "The question of standing is a legal issue that we review de novo." In re Est. of Johnson, 2010 WY 63, ¶ 4, 231 P.3d 873, 876 (Wyo. 2010). WCS' argument rests on the first factor of Wyoming's long-established test for standing articulated in Br......
  • In re Atws, S-20-0184
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • May 5, 2021
    ...and we construe all parts of the statute in pari materia ." Estate of Frank , ¶ 7, 432 P.3d at 887 (quoting In re Estate of Johnson , 2010 WY 63, ¶ 8, 231 P.3d 873, 877 (Wyo. 2010) ). [¶10] "A statute is clear and unambiguous if reasonable persons can agree on its meaning with consistency a......
  • Baessler v. Freier, No. S–10–0212.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • August 26, 2011
    ...case, “ stare decisis in respect to statutory interpretation has ‘special force’....” [258 P.3d 726] Alpine Lumber, 2010 WY 62, ¶ 12, 231 P.3d at 873 (quoting John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, 552 U.S. 130, 139, 128 S.Ct. 750, 756, 169 L.Ed.2d 591 (2008)). [¶ 15] The underlying ra......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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