Wise v. Aspey, Watkins & Diesel Att’ys at Law, PLLC – 2/03/2023

February 6, 2023

The Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two holds that mere inheritors have standing to sue and recover in a wrongful death action under A.R.S. § 12-612 only when none of the statutorily named beneficiaries survive the decedent.

Father and mother of five children divorced in Maine. As a part of the divorce proceedings, the court terminated father’s parental rights to the Maine children. Several years later, father died in an automobile collision with a tribal police officer in Arizona. Father’s widow hired a law firm to file a wrongful death claim against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The Law Firm then filed suit in Arizona District Court on behalf of father’s widow “and on behalf of all statutory beneficiaries.” The claim and complaint did not mention the Maine children. At a mediation, the parties agreed to resolve the statutory beneficiaries’ claims. The agreement did not allocate any funds to the Maine children. And, at no point had the Maine children been notified of the claim, litigation, or mediation. After the settlement’s approval but before the case was dismissed, mother learned of the settlement, objected that the Maine children were statutory beneficiaries under Arizona’s wrongful death statute, and filed a motion to intervene. The district court denied mother’s motion to intervene.

Subsequently, mother and the Maine children filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against father’s widow, the Law Firm, and attorneys at the Law Firm, arguing the Maine children were father’s statutory beneficiaries and entitled to wrongful death damages. The complaint raised claims for breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding the Maine children did not remain statutory beneficiaries under Arizona’s wrongful death statute, A.R.S. § 12-612, after the Maine court terminated father’s parental rights. The Maine decree, recognized fully by Arizona, divested father, and the Maine children of all legal rights to each other except those related to inheritance. Therefore, the court turned to the question of whether mere inheritors have standing to sue and recover for wrongful death in Arizona. Looking to the statute’s plain language, the court noted § 12-612 expressly identifies “the surviving husband or wife, children or parents” as those entitled to bring an action but recognizes the right of the decedent’s estate only “if none of these survive.” Because other specified beneficiaries with priority under § 12-612 survived, the Maine children, with mere inheritance rights, were rightly excluded from the class of individuals entitled to pursue wrongful death damages resulting from father’s death.

Judge Eckerstrom authored the opinion, in which Judgse Vásquez and Cattani concurred.

Posted by: BriAnne Illich Meeds