Wyoming Supreme Court: Beneficiaries Cannot Intervene In Wrongful Death Action

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In Archer v. Mills, the Wyoming Supreme Court addressed whether heirs of a decedent can intervene in a wrongful death action brought by the wrongful death representative.  Based on the controlling statutes, the Wyoming Supreme Court answered the question in the negative.

The Facts of Archer v. Mills

Carrie Linn died several days after undergoing elective surgery.  Kallista Mills, decedent’s niece, was appointed decedent’s wrongful death representative.  Mills brought a wrongful death action against Charles Linn, decedent’s surviving spouse, alleging that he had negligently caused decedent’s death.

A year later, Mills signed a “Release of All Claims” releasing Linn from all causes of action asserted against him in the wrongful death action.  Mills and Linn filed a stipulation motion to dismiss the wrongful death action with prejudice.  After the signing of the release but before the filing of the stipulated motion to dismiss, decedent’s daughters, Lacie Archer and Emily Farley, filed a motion to intervene in the wrongful death action.

The district court held a hearing on pending motions and because Ms. Archer and Ms. Farley had not served the motion to intervene on counsel of record, it ordered them to serve counsel within ten days of the hearing. It cautioned that failure to do so would result in a dismissal of the action. Ms. Archer and Ms. Farley did not serve the motion within ten days, and the court dismissed the action with prejudice. Ms. Archer and Ms. Farley appeal.

Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Action In Wyoming?

Only the appointed wrongful death representative can bring a wrongful death action in Wyoming.  Wyoming’s statutes establish the procedure for bringing a wrongful death action. See Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-38-101 through -105.

Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-38-102(a) states:

Every wrongful death action under W.S. 1-38-101 shall be brought by and in the name of the decedent’s wrongful death representative for the exclusive benefit of beneficiaries who have sustained damage.  (emphasis added).

The Wyoming courts have consistently found the word “shall” in a statute to be mandatory. Thus, section 102(a) requires wrongful death actions to be brought by the wrongful death representative. The statute does not permit anyone other than the wrongful death representative to bring a wrongful death action.

The Wrongful Death Representative Represents the Interests Of the Beneficiaries

The proceeding to appoint a wrongful death representative is a separate action pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-38-103(b).

The Wyoming Supreme Court explained:

Section 103(c) states that “[t]he appointment of the wrongful death representative is a procedural device intended to provide a representative to investigate and bring an action under W.S. 1-38-101. . . .” Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-38-103(c).

This, together with section 102(a), which states that wrongful death actions “shall be brought by” the wrongful death representative, demonstrates that the legislature intended that only the wrongful death representative may bring wrongful death actions. The rationale for this requirement is sound. The statutory procedure provides certainty in wrongful death actions, where there may be multiple beneficiaries that have sustained damage due to the decedent’s death. It assures wrongful death defendants that all claims will proceed in a single action brought for the benefit of any beneficiaries. Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-38-102(a), 1-38-103(c).

Beneficiaries not named as the wrongful death representative are not without recourse.  Anyone claiming to qualify as a wrongful death representative may intervene in the separate appointment proceeding as a matter of right and may file motions to reconsider the appointment of a wrongful death representative. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-38-103(b).

Who Can Serve As the Wrongful Death Representative Under Wyoming Law?

Wyoming Statute § 1-38-104 sets forth the factors for who can serve as a wrongful death representative under Wyoming law.   The court must determine the person who will best represent the interests of the potential beneficiaries of the action as a whole by considering:

  1. The familial or other relationship of the person making application to the decedent;
  2. The interests of the person making application in relation to the interests of other potential beneficiaries as a whole;
  3. Actions taken to secure appointment as the wrongful death representative and to protect the interests of all potential beneficiaries;
  4. Such other factors as the court deems relevant.

 

The order appointing the wrongful death representative cannot be appealed, but the court may entertain a motion to reconsider the appointment of the wrongful death representative.

Why Can’t a Beneficiary Intervene In a Wrongful Death Action?

A beneficiary can’t intervene in a wrongful death action because Wyoming law only allows the action to be brought by the appointed wrongful death representative.  The Wyoming Supreme Court explained:

In accordance with the statutory framework, Ms. Mills was appointed the wrongful death representative for Mrs. Linn. Undoubtedly, as Mrs. Linn’s daughters, Ms. Archer or Ms. Farley would have “qualified” as her wrongful death representative under section 104. Either could have intervened in the appointment action as a matter of right. Neither of them sought to intervene in that action nor filed a motion to reconsider the appointment of Ms. Mills as the wrongful death representative. See Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-38-103(b) and 1-38-104.

Instead, Ms. Archer and Ms. Farley sought to intervene in this separate wrongful death action brought by Mrs. Linn’s wrongful death representative, Ms. Mills. The statute allows only one plaintiff in wrongful death actions—the wrongful death representative. Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 1-38-102(a); supra ¶ 10. Ms. Mills is Mrs. Linn’s wrongful death representative. Ms. Archer and Ms. Farley’s intervention is precluded.

 

The Wyoming wrongful death statutes require that a wrongful death action be brought by the duly appointed wrongful death representative for the benefit of all the beneficiaries.  Beneficiaries, unless appointed as the wrongful death representative are barred from intervening in wrongful death actions.  The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s denial of the daughters’ motion to intervene in the wrongful death action.