Losing a loved one is hard enough. What happens, however, when multiple people claim they have a right to the same property the decedent owns at the time of their death? Cases involving multiple parties and claimants can get tricky, especially when one claimant was the decedent’s spouse and the other was their descendant, as was the case in the following lawsuit.
After being killed in an accident in New Orleans, Tommie Varnado’s widow, Patricia Varnado, filed a wrongful death and survival action lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). Although Patricia agreed to settle with DOTD, she died before the trial court signed a consent judgment memorizing the settlement. The trial court then signed a consent judgment ten days after Patricia’s death. Months later, Kenneth John Gaunichaux filed a motion to substitute himself as the plaintiff in place of Patricia, alleging the two were married at the time of her death and that he was entitled to recover the settlement proceeds. The trial court permitted the substitution, although, before the settlement distribution, the DOTD questioned the validity of the consent judgment, as it was signed after Patricia’s death.
Melvin J. Owens Jr. then filed a motion to vacate and set aside Kenneth’s motion for party substitution, instead alleging he should be substituted as the plaintiff in place of Patricia. In his motion to substitute party plaintiff, Melvin argued he was the sole heir of Patricia and was the proper party to represent her and to receive the damage award.
The Civil District Court of Orleans Parish found Melvin to be the proper party to receive the settlement proceeds. Before the signing of the judgment, however, Kenneth filed a motion for reconsideration. The Trial Court noted that applicable Louisiana law did not recognize Kenneth’s motion and subsequently denied it. Kenneth then filed an appeal to the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal.
Under Louisiana law, the separate property of a spouse is theirs exclusively. See La. C.C. art. 2341. The Court of Appeal found that Patricia’s right to recover accrued when Tommie died. This right also accrued before her marriage to Kenneth and, as such, was considered Patricia’s separate property. Therefore, when Patricia died, the damage award became part of her estate.
La. C.C. art. 880 states, in part, that when a person dies intestate, as Patricia did, their property devolves in favor of their descendants and spouse. La. C. C. art. 888 states, in part, that descendants succeed to the property of their ascendants.
The Court of Appeal applied these articles and found that Patricia’s property was devolved by law to her only descendant, Melvin. Based on this finding, the Trial Court’s ruling that Melvin was the proper party to be substituted as plaintiff and receive the settlement proceeds was affirmed.
As can be seen, in this case, lawsuits involving multiple claimants and relatives can become complicated, especially when several people claim they are entitled to the same property and the individual dies without a will. That is why it is crucial to hire an attorney with knowledge of the laws surrounding succession rights.
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Samantha Calhoun
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Succession Rights: Fifth Circuit Court Finds Succession Administrator Can Bring Civil Rights Action — Louisiana Personal Injury Lawyer Blog — February 10, 2023