Florida courts have two views on the interpretation of the definition of when a spouse counts as a surviving spouse under the Wrongful Death Act. In the case that the Supreme Court looked at, a widow and the adult children of the decedent filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a company because the decedent died from mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos.

Listen to Paul and Jason discuss this case on the LiveFeedReed podcast

You might think that this would be a cut-and-dried lawsuit, but some extenuating factors took place in a matter of a few months. First, the couple was not married when the decedent was diagnosed. They had been living together for decades but got married a couple of months after the diagnosis. The decedent died four months later.

Common Law Related to the Wrongful Death Statute

Common laws are not codified – they are not written in statutes. They are based on legal precedent – rulings from other courts. The “laws” are derived from judicial decisions – court rulings rather than statutes.

Statutory Law

When the government makes a law, it is written in statutes. The Wrongful Death Act is a statute that determines who can recover damages, among other things, should you need to file a wrongful death case.

While courts must follow statutory law when making decisions, they can also follow common law. However, when different courts determine a different interpretation for a statute, you can run into problems – and that’s the last thing you need when you’ve lost a loved one.

What is a Surviving Spouse?

In the above case, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case, stating that the “surviving spouse” wasn’t really a surviving spouse. The defendant’s attorneys based this on a ruling from the First Circuit Court of Appeals that a surviving spouse meant the couple was married at the time of the injury.

The family accepted the ruling and argued that the adult children could still bring the lawsuit. However, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that because the couple were married at the time of death, there was a surviving spouse, and the adult children could not bring the lawsuit.

In a nutshell, the First and Fifth Circuit Courts looked at two cases that interpreted the definition of a surviving spouse differently.

The Supreme Court finally took this under consideration to end the differences in the Circuit Courts’ interpretations of the definition of a surviving spouse.

The summary judgment case for the motion to dismiss went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in May 2024, agreeing with the Fifth Circuit’s ruling – that a surviving spouse only needs to be married at the time of death, not at the time of the injury.

Contact Reed & Reed

If you lost a loved one because of a workplace accident or illness, contact Reed & Reed for a case evaluation.