The recent Utah Court of Appeals opinion in Bagley and Estate of Vom Baur v. Bagley, 2015 UT App 33, has garnered national media attention. Barbara Bagley and the estate of her late husband are attempting to sue Barbara Bagley. It’s not a coincidence. It’s the same person. She’s suing herself.
And with that one seemingly important fact, the minds of journalists and legal observers across the country were completely and irrevocably blown. Editors in newsrooms immediately started churning out pun-based headlines like a dad trying to charm a waitress at a Denny’s. So far, I think Fox News wins the race to the bottom with their headline: “Suit yourself: Utah court lets woman sue herself over fatal wreck.” When you start the headline with a stupid joke and end it with “fatal wreck,” you’re doing it wrong. Stay classy Fox News.
This case, however, is not as mind blowing as it seems. It really comes down to the plain meaning of the relevant statutes.
To begin with, there is absolutely nothing unusual about a person or a company suing on another person’s behalf. It happens all the time. Insurance companies often require in their contracts that they can bring a claim or defend against a claim on the insured person’s behalf. This results in many cases that appear to be neighbors suing neighbors, friends suing friends, and family members suing family members. But that’s not what’s happening. It’s the insurance company suing the neighbors, friends, and family members, or vice versa.
The defendant “Barbara Bagley” in this case is not, in reality, Barbara Bagley. The defendant is really her insurance company. ¶ 2. The real Barbara paid the insurance company so that if she made a mistake while driving, the insurance company would pay for the harm she caused. The insurance company, however, does not want to pay for her negligence if it doesn’t have to, so it is defending against the claim under her name. She likely has no say in the matter.
A better way to think about the situation is that Bagley’s husband is suing her insurance company for her negligent driving. Bagley is also suing the insurance company, but that makes sense, too. She paid the insurance company so that if she caused an accident, the insurance company would pay the costs. If the insurance company doesn’t like that she was indirectly the victim of her own negligence, it could have contracted around it. On top of that, the Court of Appeals was not asked to consider whether Bagley’s claims were barred by comparative negligence. ¶ 7 n.1.
Despite the drummed up headlines, this case really comes down to a very straightforward reading of Utah statutes. Utah’s wrongful-death statute states that “when the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act of another, his heirs . . . may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death.” Utah Code § 78B-3-106(1). The deceased husband is the person and his death was caused by the negligent act “of another” person—his wife. Therefore, the deceased husband’s heirs and representatives can sue for wrongful death. Additionally, Utah’s survival-action statute provides that “the personal representatives or the heirs of the person who died . . . [have] a cause of action against the wrongdoer.” Utah Code § 78B-3-107. Again, the husband died. The wife was allegedly the wrongdoer. Therefore, the heir and representative, the wife, has a cause of action against the insurance company that is defending under her name. The Court of Appeals did a fantastic job interpreting the language of the statutes. ¶¶ 11–16. After reading it, I find it difficult to imagine a different result.
In a final Hail Mary, the insurance company tried to argue that applying a plain reading of these statutes would be contrary to “’basic notions of fairness and decency.’” ¶ 17. I’m sure to insurance companies, it often seems indecent and unfair when they have to pay on a claim. But those are the risks. If you don’t want to pay for other people’s negligence, don’t take their premiums.
So, while it is admittedly interesting that a woman is suing herself, the legal issues are pretty straightforward. It’s also important to remember that behind the clever headlines, there is a woman who has lost her husband in a horrible accident and is now embroiled in a labyrinthine legal proceeding. I hope that the Court of Appeals has been able to settle some of the legal issues for her and that this matter may be resolved as quickly as possible.