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Pop Quiz: In Utah, it is legal to ____ yourself

Posted Friday, February 27, 2015 by John S. Palmer

In nearly 25 years of practicing law, I thought I had seen it all, and then a case like this comes along.

In Utah, a woman named Barbara Bagley, as executrix and heir of her late husband’s estate, has filed a wrongful death suit against herself as the driver who caused the accident that killed him, in order to collect damages from her auto insurance policy. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

According to court documents, Bagley lost control of a Range Rover she was driving in the desert…on Dec. 27, 2011, when she hit a big sagebrush, causing the vehicle to flip upside down.

Her husband was thrown from the vehicle and suffered severe injuries. The 55-year-old…died Jan. 6, 2012…

In her suit, Bagley claims she was negligent for failing to maintain a proper lookout and to keep her vehicle under proper control.

Bagley’s auto insurance company is defending her, and the trial court dismissed the suit because it found Utah’s wrongful death statute “evidences an intent to exclude recovery to heirs who have caused the wrongful act or neglect leading to the death of the decedent.”

However on February 12 the Utah Court of Appeals reinstated the suit, holding that the “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.” The court also said that the clause of the wrongful death statute permitting an action to be pursued when the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act or neglect “of another” means caused by someone other than the decedent, not other than the personal representative or an heir, as the defense argued.

The court also declined to apply the absurd result doctrine which states that a court should not follow the literal language of a statute if its plain meaning works an absurd result because “application of this doctrine is limited to those circumstances where “the result is so absurd that [the Legislature] could not possibly have intended it.”

The opinion notes that although courts in New York and Florida have permitted similar lawsuits to go forward, most states do not. There does not appear to be any Washington appellate case directly addressing this issue.

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