Defendant’s Death Does Not Make A Legal Nullity

Car Accidents

In the case of Linda Friedel v. Elizabeth Edwards, Case Number 2D20-2233 (Fla. 2d DCA September 29, 2021), Florida’s Second DCA held that a lawsuit against the defendant was not a legal nullity where the defendant passed away shortly before the lawsuit was filed.

Relevant Facts and Circumstances

This case involved a car accident in 2015. However, Ms. Friedel did not file a lawsuit against Ms. Edwards until 2019. By the time that the lawsuit was filed, Ms. Edwards had already passed away some three months prior.

Obviously, Ms. Friedel and her attorney would have been unaware of this fact and filed the lawsuit against Ms. Edwards rather than against her estate. In any event, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the trial judge entered an order removing Ms. Edwards as a party and substituting an attorney as personal representative for Ms. Edwards’ estate. Further, the appointed attorney agreed to accept service of process on behalf of the estate and agreed to respond to the lawsuit within 20 days.

All of that is well except for the fact that the appointed attorney responded to the lawsuit by filing a motion to dismiss asserting that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the lawsuit. The argument made and cited by the Second DCA is bewildering. It stated:

[The Estate’s] argument ran as follows: since the complaint named a deceased person as the defendant, and since the complaint named a deceased person as the defendant, and since an action cannot proceed against a deceased person, then complaint was a ‘legal nullity,’ and, therefore, the court had no jurisdiction to proceed upon it.

Further, these arguments were made after the statute of limitations had expired and the Estate made the argument that the plaintiff should not be allowed to amend her lawsuit and relate back to the original filing which was clearly filed during the statute of limitations.

Court Ruling, Analysis, and Appeal

The trial judge relied on case law that was intended for tobacco cases to dismiss cases filed by deceased plaintiffs. In that case, there were lawsuits filed on behalf of dead people with no authority for anyone to file such suits. While those cases should be properly dismissed, this situation is not analogous to the one at hand where a defendant passes away prior to being sued.

On appeal, the Second DCA held that the plaintiff’s negligence complaint is not a legal nullity merely because the defendant passed away. The Second DCA also referred to the plaintiff’s automobile negligence complaint as a tried and true cause of action. Accordingly, the Second DCA reversed the trial judge and allowed the case to proceed against the Estate.

Upon a suggestion of death in litigation in Florida, the proper procedure is substitute the deceased party with a personal representative for the estate of such deceased party under the rules of civil procedure. The lawsuit itself is the same with the only exception being that the deceased party (obviously because they are deceased) has been changed out for his or her estate.

That process seemed to have been followed with the exception of dismissing the case as a legal nullity after substituting the party.

Get Legal Advice From A Lakeland Car Accident Attorney

At Russo Law, we help people who have been injured in Florida car accidents. With your case, there will be a number of different decisions that you will need to make. Those decisions often have implications on the outcome of the case. Your attorney’s job is to help you make the best decisions possible under the circumstances. If you have questions about facts or circumstances of your case, including questions of what you should do under certain circumstances, then you should give us a call to schedule a free consultation with a Lakeland car accident lawyer.

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September 30, 2021