Fla. Sup. Ct. Refuses Attempt to Deny Surviving Spouse’s Wrongful Death Claim

Posted by Phillip Warren | Jun 17, 2024 | 0 Comments

Sometimes legal phrases are clear enough for everyday people to understand and interpret.  What does the phrase “surviving spouse” mean to you?  If you said: a spouse who survives the other, you would be right.  And, in this case, the Florida Supreme Court would agree with you.  Here, the corporate defendants—tortfeasors accused of negligently exposing the decedent to deadly asbestos causing his mesothelioma and, ultimately, his death—argued the decedent and his wife must have been married when he was diagnosed in order for the wife to qualify as a “surviving spouse” to pursue a claim for the husband's wrongful death.  Meaning, there must be “marriage before injury” for the spouse to be able to pursue the corporate tortfeasors for their wrongful acts that caused her husband's death.  Here is why the Fla. Sup. Ct. shut this argument down. 

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Ripple v. CBS Corp. – Marriage Timeline and Wrongful Death Claim

The decedent, Richard, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, allegedly caused by the corporate defendants' negligent conduct in exposing him to asbestos.  Two months after the diagnosis, Richard married Jennifer Ripple, the plaintiff in this case.  Unfortunately, only four short months after the marriage, Richard passed away from his illness.  After his death, Ripple asserted a wrongful death claim for her husband's death.  The corporate defendants argued a “marriage before injury” rule successfully to both the trial court and Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal that meant Ripple could not qualify as a “surviving spouse” because she married Richard after he was diagnosed.  However, the defendants' “marriage before injury” rule is based on a spouse's ability to recover for loss of consortium, which is loss of companionship/assistance when a spouse is injured but still alive.  A wrongful death claim is an entirely separate claim, seeking recovery for the loss of a spouse's life. 

Boldly, the defendants argued Ripple did not qualify as a “surviving spouse” under the subsection of the wrongful death statute that allows her to recover but that she did qualify as a “surviving spouse” under a different subsection of the statute that would prevent Richard's children from recovering for his wrongful death.  Thankfully, the Florida Supreme Court saw through the defendants' attempt to talk out of both sides of their mouths—asking the court to accept this “irreconcilable contradiction” Ripple's attorneys called it—so they could avoid their liability for Richard's untimely death. 

The Florida Supreme Court Finds Ripple Is a “Surviving Spouse”

The Supreme Court first noted, as mentioned at the outset of this blog, that a “surviving spouse” is a simple term that means “a spouse who outlives the other spouse.”  Ripple. v. CBS Corp., 2024 Fla. LEXIS 702, *11 (Fla. May 9, 2024).  The Court also explained that a wrongful death claim is not a continuation of a loss of consortium claim (or Richard's personal injury claim).  It is an entirely new statutory claim for the wrongful death, and it allows a “surviving spouse” to recover loss of companionship and mental pain and suffering from the time of the injury until the time of the death.  Any anomaly presented by the fact that Ripple could recover damages from the date of diagnosis (i.e., the date of the injury) before she married Richard the Court explained needed to be corrected by the legislature, not through creative, contradictory interpretation by the courts. 

The Florida Supreme Court also put stock—as do we, as trial attorneys—in the jury's ability to consider the timing and motive for the marriage to determine whether a “surviving spouse” intentionally married into an illness for the sole purpose of pursuing a claim for wrongful death.  As we know: jurors are savvy.  They can typically ascertain rather quickly which side is trying to pull a fast one on them.  In this case, we are thrilled the Florida Supreme Court did not buy into these tortfeasors' attempt to deny both the surviving spouse's right to recover for her husband's wrongful death but also his children's right to recover as well.  Under this new opinion, as long as a spouse was married at the time of death and survived the decedent, he or she can pursue a claim under Florida's wrongful death statute: Fla. Stat. 768.21.

Read Ripple v. CBS Corp., 2024 Fla. LEXIS 702 (Fla. May 9, 2024)

Wrongful Death Claims Are Complicated – Do You Need Help?

The important takeaway here is that wrongful death claims can be complicated and involve many different laws that all impact and affect one another.  If you have lost a loved one and believe the death may have been caused by the negligent conduct of a person or corporation, you should seek help before pursuing a wrongful death claim.  Experienced wrongful death attorneys, like our attorneys at TWWHB, will work to ensure your rights and claim are protected and that you take the right steps to put your wrongful death claim in the best position possible for recovery.  We never require any fee or obligation to simply talk to you about your claim and answer your questions.  Contact us.  Dealing with the death of a family member can be devastating enough.  You deserve a trusted voice and someone looking out for you.  We are here to help. 

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About the Author

Phillip Warren

Phillip devotes the same honor, courage, and commitment to his clients as he did in the USMC.


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