It should be obvious. This is as much a lesson for personal-injury attorneys as it is a lecture in the law. The case and the lesson grow out of a slip-and-fall injury in September 2016. Carolyn took the fall on the steps of a hospital where her son-in-law had just had surgery. She suffered a broken nose and cuts above the eye, among other injuries. Three days later Carolyn hired a lawyer to pursue a claim against the hospital. Fifteen months later, with no lawsuit yet filed, Carolyn died of unrelated causes. The lawyer had no idea that she had died.
Nine months passed. Then, in September 2018, and just before the running of the statute of limitations, the lawyer filed Carolyn’s lawsuit against the hospital. He still did not know of her death. Discovery began in the suit, and the lawyer wrote to his client to discuss the discovery. Carolyn, of course, did not respond. In time the lawyer searched public records and discovered, at last, that his client had died over a year before. He had filed a court complaint for a dead person. What was he to do?
In March and April 2019, the lawyer wrote to Carolyn’s son, who agreed to continue the personal-injury suit in the name of her estate, under the Survivor’s Act. The lawyer asked the hospital to consent to an amended complaint naming the estate as plaintiff, and having it relate back to the September 2018 filing. The hospital refused, and in October 2019 the lawyer filed a motion asking the court for the same amendment and grace period. Otherwise, the complaint would be time-barred and dismissed. But would the court agree?
This was now three years after the accident, fifteen months after Carolyn’s death, and thirteen months after the end of the statute of limitations. Had Carolyn died after filing suit, the substitution of her estate would be no problem. But a dead person has no standing to file a lawsuit. The appellate court quoted from a 1945 Chancery case: “an earthly court has no jurisdiction over the dead. Only the living can litigate here.”
And so it was. The original complaint was a nullity, ruled the court, “leaving nothing for the amended complaint to ‘relate back’ to.” The court denied the motion and ordered the original complaint dismissed with prejudice.
The lesson is clear: make sure your client is living before filing her lawsuit.