5

Prompted by a comment in another question, the story of a woman suing herself came to my attention.

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/02/19/utah-appeals-court-allows-woman-to-sue-herself-over-fatal-car-crash/

Suit yourself: Utah court lets woman sue herself over fatal wreck

A Utah woman will be the plaintiff and the defendant in a wrongful death lawsuit that has legal experts scratching their heads.

Barbara Bagley was driving her family's Range Rover Dec. 27, 2011 on Interstate 80 near Battle Mountain, Nev., when it slid on sagebrush on Interstate 80, and flipped. Her husband, Bradley Vom Baur, was sent flying from the vehicle, suffered major injuries and died nearly two weeks later in a hospital, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Bagley, 48, suffered a concussion, broken ribs, a shattered wrist and two punctured lungs. One of her dogs, a Shetland sheepdog named Dooley, ran from the scene and wandered the desert for 53 days before being found.

Someone mentioned in the comments to the article the full name of the case:

k_runner Feb 20, 2015

For those who follow particular cases, this one is "Barbara Bagley and the Estate of Bradley M. Vom Baur v. Barbara Bagley" or simply "Bagley v. Bagley."

But more interesting is another comment:

MrTrout Feb 19, 2015 If she is suing herself for negligence which resulted in the death of another, then the state should arrest her and charge her with manslaughter (ie- negligence resulting in the death of another). She is basically admitting she caused the death of her husband through negligence. From a legal perspective, seems pretty straight forward to me.

Indeed, if she sues herself in a civil case for negligence (resulting in death of another), doesn't she automatically have to admit the guilt, and wouldn't / shouldn't she be immediately charged for manslaughter by the state?

  • BTW, there are also some interesting legal analysis on Self v. Self at CBS -- cbsnews.com/news/… – cnst Oct 16 '15 at 9:53
  • Note that even when a defendant confesses a crime and pleads guilty, the court can still rule that they are actually innocent. – Philipp Oct 16 '15 at 11:45
  • First thing to do would be to look up Utah's manslaughter law and see what level of negligence it requires. Unfortunately, the Utah government website where laws are posted doesn't seem to be working right now. – Nate Eldredge Oct 16 '15 at 13:53
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The burden for proving claims in civil actions is "preponderance of evidence," i.e., merely that "more than 50% of the evidence favors a conclusion."

However, the standard for conviction of any crime is "beyond a reasonable doubt." I.e., if the defense can raise reasonable doubt about one's guilt then the defendant should be acquitted.

There is quite a bit of space between the two standards, which is compounded by prosecutorial discretion to even bring criminal charges.

  • I don't think that this is getting at the question. This would be a fine answer to something like ‘If O.J. Simpson was find liable for Nicole Brown's death, then why wasn't he found guilty of murder?’, but the point here (as I understand it) is that filing the lawsuit is tantamount to a confession. We're not even presuming that the lawsuit succeeds; its standard of proof is irrelevant. It's that the mere existence of the lawsuit is evidence of something criminal. – Toby Bartels Mar 21 '18 at 16:26
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    @TobyBartels – Some of the other answers go into that angle further. In jurisdictions with which I am familiar, a civil action only requires an entity with standing (e.g., an estate in this case) and a verified complaint (properly filed in a court with jurisdiction). I think one can formulate a complaint asking for a finding of civil liability and a commensurate judgment without asserting under oath that one committed the act producing the liability. – feetwet Mar 21 '18 at 17:11
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First of all, you can't "sue yourself." In this case, the estate of the husband is suing the wife. Apparently the wife is trying to manipulate insurance into paying her for accidentally killing her husband through her own negligence. That is really shameless, assuming she's to benefit.

That said, you can admit to negligence and not expose yourself to criminal charges. Manslaughter requires more than mere negligence. It would need to be gross negligence – such reckless and abhorrent behavior that it would imply malice. Ordinary negligence, which is a plain old accident, does not rise to this level. It's not outcome-specific, but rather an action-specific analysis. So, hypothetically, you could admit negligence and not be admitting to a crime. Though your lawyer would need to ensure you testified carefully!

Notwithstanding the above: The insurance industry is certainly not going to allow itself to be manipulated in this way. No liability or umbrella policy provides coverage against litigation from someone listed (or who should have been listed) on the policy. Even if the policies didn't explicitly exclude such coverage you would not likely prevail: The insurance lobby will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court if they have to, and I think they'd ultimately win, because it's bad policy to allow a policyholder to sue himself anytime there's an accident; if that logic held, you could conceivably sue yourself on your own behalf for your own injuries. This would flood the courts with even more frivolous suits, as what's one have to lose in a judgment against themselves if the insurance could be liable. I'm quite sure that would be untenable; the rates for liability insurance would have to be exponentially larger if that were ever enforceable, even in the absence of exclusionary language (although i've never seen a policy that would allow such a thing, it doesn't mean it couldn't exist in theory).

The legal system is meant to be adversarial. An example like this, in which "the estate" of one's spouse is suing the spouse, but the spouse is the only beneficiary of the estate, is ludicrous and against all tenets of the judicial process. If the judge doesn't reject it I wouldn't expect any jury to want someone to benefit from a death in which they admit negligence. And in court it is very easy to pierce any "veil" that might be constructed to hide the ultimate beneficiary of an award.

  • If she had accidentally killed anyone else's husband through negligence, she could be sued by the estate of the dead man and the insurance would have to pay. If anyone else had accidentally killed her husband through negligence, she could sue that person and the insurance would have to pay. So what's the problem? Anyway, "negligence" means it's your fault and your insurance has to pay. "Gross negligence" or "with intent" is a different matter. – gnasher729 Nov 6 '15 at 22:05
  • @gnasher729, you're right as to the scenarios you posit. The difference here, is that he's talking about a woman trying to sue herself, for her own negligence, with the hope that she can get her own insurance to pay her for being negligent. Since she is the tortfeasor, the insurance won't defend and indemnify her, against herself as D and P, where all she needs to do is admit her own negligence. Insurance will pay if you cause other people's injuries or estate of the other person like theirs would if you're injured; but they won't pay if you claim damages as a plaintiff against yourself. – gracey209 Nov 7 '15 at 0:14
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    Yep. Ordinary Negligence is not checking if your gun is loaded before cleaning it. Gross Negligence is shooting at a crowd of children, thinking to yourself, "I don't indend to kill anyone, and I hope I don't, but if they want to stand in front of my bullets it's not my fault.". – Robert Columbia Mar 21 '18 at 0:36
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When you sue a person in a civil court you claim that they caused you damage and should pay for it. The fact that you sue doesn't mean that your claim is true. It doesn't even mean that you believe it to be true (obviously you shouldn't sue in such a case, and it might create liability, but you can sue for things that you know are false).

So the suing doesn't create any evidence that your claim is true. But then there is the difference between your claim that damage has occurred, and whether there was an actual crime. While some civil cases are about crimes (if I take a hammer to your car, that is criminal, but you don't care about the crime, you want me to pay for the damage), many, many are not.

I'd say it is perfectly possible to sue for some claim, win the case, and then in criminal court completely deny that claim. Not a nice thing to do, but possible.

0

Reading only slightly deeper into the given example in Utah, of the woman "suing herself," as it typical the media got it essentially wrong. From a legal standpoint, the decedent husband's estate is suing her, not herself...though she is in this case the Administrator of her husband's estate. And, as would naturally follow from that, there is a third-party-payor, an insurance policy.

Another scenario where this kind of thing plays out is when a family-owned business sues the family (or vice versa). Generally speaking, a court does not allow a co-respondent where that person is also a petitioner, because they recognize that such a person will by definition be hostile to their own defense, and usually to the detriment of the other co-respondents.

I was involved in just such a NH superior court case: A couple is in divorce procedings. Parents of spouse A sue the couple for repayment of an alleged 2nd mortgage. (leaving aside the question of validity or lack thereof of the mortgage itself) The mortgage is held by a trust for which the parents of "A" are trustees, and spouse "A" is a beneficiary. Therefore, through the intermediary of the trust, spouse A is suing herself and spouse B, to the detriment of spouse B.

Ultimately the petitioners' case foundered on the question of the validity of the mortgage, which was found to have been discharged years before: Additionally, spouse A was denied as a co-respondent; allowing her as such would in that case have meant that she could unilaterally admit the mortgage debt as valid, where it would then become part of the divorce marital inventory...a sly gambit that was denied. If the case had been allowed to move forward, spouse A would have been enriched at the expense of spouse B no matter win or lose.

But further to the OP's question: There's quite a bit of daylight between being negligent and being guilty of manslaughter. As was well-put by Feetwet, the tort process and the criminal process are quite different things.

  • So you're saying there is a common law principle that one cannot sue an entity of which one is a member? What if one is sole member of the defending entity? – feetwet Oct 16 '15 at 18:29
  • @feetwet...no, not saying that. Not at all. If it were true, there'd never be suits brought by shareholders in a corporation (for one obvious example.) What I'm saying here is that there are extant scenarios for being both petitioner and respondent, and usually it involves dipping one's hand into the pockets of co-respondents. Another typical reason is that there's a third-party payor, and yet another example is to shuffle tax liability around. – dwoz Oct 16 '15 at 18:35
  • But there are principled circumstances in which such actions are not allowed? It does seem unsporting to allow an action in which a plaintiff member can also essentially throw the defense, thereby taking from the pockets of all co-defendants! I.e., your note that, "Generally speaking, a court does not allow a co-respondent where that person is also a petitioner, because they recognize that such a person will by definition be hostile to their own defense, and usually to the detriment of the other co-respondents" makes sense. Wondering how that is codified? – feetwet Oct 16 '15 at 18:48
  • @feetwet in common law jurisdictions it doesn't need to be "codified", precedent is enough – Dale M Oct 16 '15 at 21:28
  • @DaleM - Right, I meant: is there a broad precedent or widely-accepted common law opinion that addresses this type of "conflict of interest"? (Or does this merit a separate question post?) – feetwet Oct 16 '15 at 21:48

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