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Appellate Court Case May Lead to Change in Alabama Wrongful Death Law

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals recently rendered an opinion addressing a procedural issue of Alabama wrongful death litigation. While the opinion does not directly affect claims under the Alabama wrongful death statute, the case does hint that a current ambiguity in wrongful death litigation may be addressed by the appellate courts in the near future.

In Maclin v. Congo, a tow truck driver and his employer brought suit against a motorist, claiming damages for injuries sustained when the defendant motorist crashed into the tow truck. The defendant driver, however, had died (from other causes) since the date of the motor vehicle accident.

The defense argued that since no estate had been opened as of the complaint's filing, the plaintiff could not maintain his personal injury action against the deceased motorist. The plaintiff then requested that the trial court appoint an administrator ad litem to represent the defendant's estate; the trial court granted the request. The defense continued to challenge on the basis that, even with an administrator ad litem, the case must be dismissed because no formal estate existed. The jury eventually found in favor of the injured tow truck driver, and the defense appealed.

The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals vacated the judgment upon appeal, holding that the trial court never had subject-matter jurisdiction over the action. The Court stated that since the defendant was deceased when the complaint was filed, the action was void ab initio. The Court, however, failed to discuss whether the appointment of the administrator ad litem would have been proper if the defendant's estate had been open at the initiation of the action.

Per statute, an administrator ad litem may represent an estate of a deceased party whenever the estate is not represented by an executor or administrator. Alabama's wrongful death statute provides that a personal representative may bring an action on behalf of the deceased party, but the statute does not expressly require the creation of an estate prior to filing a complaint.

Currently, an administrator ad litem can bring a wrongful death claim without opening a formal estate. Future cases may use the dicta and defense argument from Maclin to assert that an estate must exist before a wrongful death lawsuit can be filed. If such an opinion is rendered, administrators ad litem may not be eligible to bring an Alabama wrongful death lawsuit unless/until the deceased party's formal estate is opened in the appropriate probate court.

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