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Jerrels v. Jerrels

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

June 12, 2019

SARAH JERRELS, as personal representative of the Estate of Dylan Jerrels, Appellant,
v.
SABRINA JERRELS, as personal representative of the Estate of Jasper W. Jerrels, Jr.; and SIMONE SINGLETARY KENYON, as personal representative of the Estate of Hue Pham Singletary, Appellees.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hillsborough County; Catherine M. Catlin, Judge.

          Eric D. Nowak of McBreen & Nowak, P.A., Tampa; and Tae K. Bronner of Tae Kelly Bronner, P.L., Tampa, for Appellant.

          David D. Dickey of The Yerrid Law Firm, Tampa, for Appellee Simone Singletary Kenyon. No appearance for remaining Appellee.

          LAROSE, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Sarah Jerrels, the personal representative of her son's estate, appeals the trial court's order limiting the scope of the wrongful death claim brought on behalf of Dylan Jerrels' estate against the estate of his father, Jasper W. Jerrels. We have jurisdiction. See Fla. R. App. P. 9.170(b)(18) (authorizing appeals from orders "determin[ing] a motion or petition to strike an objection to a claim against an estate"). Because the trial court erred in limiting Dylan's[1] Estate's wrongful death claim to the amount of Jasper's insurance coverage, we reverse.

         Background

         The undisputed facts are tragic. Jasper piloted a private plane in which his seventeen-year-old son, Dylan, and Jasper's girlfriend, Hue Pham Singletary, were passengers. The plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, killing all three.

         Sabrina Jerrels, Jasper's daughter, petitioned for the intestate administration of Jasper's estate. Dylan's Estate and Singletary's Estate each filed a Statement of Claim for wrongful death, asserting that Jasper's negligence caused the fatal crash.

         Singletary's Estate objected to the claim filed by Dylan's Estate. Because Dylan was an unemancipated minor at the time of his death, Singletary's Estate argued that the "claim . . . [wa]s barred by the doctrine of parental immunity for any amounts beyond the limits of liability insurance" held by Jasper.

         Singletary's Estate relied on Ard v. Ard, 414 So.2d 1066, 1067 (Fla. 1982) ("While we reaffirm our adherence to parental/family immunity, we hold that, in a tort action for negligence arising from an accident and brought by an unemancipated minor child against a parent, the doctrine of parental immunity is waived to the extent of the parent's available liability insurance coverage. If the parent is without liability insurance, or if the policy contains an exclusion clause for household or family members, then parental immunity is not waived and the child cannot sue the parent."), and Joseph v. Quest, 414 So.2d 1063, 1063 (Fla. 1982) (answering the certified question as to whether "an action for contribution lies against the parent of an injured child . . . by holding that contribution is available against a parent to the extent of existing liability insurance coverage for the parent's tort against the child").

         The trial court agreed with Singletary's Estate based upon "[a] strict reading of Florida Statute § 768.19, [Fla. Stat. (2016)]" explaining that "[h]ad Dylan . . . survived there is no dispute" that Dylan's recovery would have been limited to Jasper's insurance policy limits. Thus, although the doctrine of parental immunity may "no longer exist . . . that [wrongful death] suit is still limited by . . . . Ard v. Ard and Joseph v. Quest." Consequently, the trial court sustained the objection.

         Dylan's Estate counters before us that parental immunity is inapplicable. Dylan's Estate argues that because both parties to the immunity are deceased, the public policy purposes underlying parental immunity disappear. Dylan's Estate also asserts that, because of the deaths of Dylan and Jasper, the trial court erred in capping the estate's claims to the amount of available insurance.

         Analysis

         This case offers a confounding confluence of competing legal issues. Because the primary basis for the trial court's decision turns on its reading of section 768.19, we turn first to the statute.

         I. Florida Wrongful Death Act

         Our "purpose in construing a statute is to give effect to legislative intent, which is the polestar that guides the court in statutory construction." Gomez v. Vill. of Pinecrest, 41 So.3d 180, 185 (Fla. 2010); see also Diamond Aircraft Indus., Inc. v. Horowitch, 107 So.3d 362, 367 (Fla. 2013) ("Legislative intent is the polestar that guides our analysis regarding the construction and application of the statute." (citing Bautista v. State, 863 So.2d 1180, 1185 (Fla. 2003))). Thus, we" 'begin with the actual language used in the statute' because legislative intent is determined first and foremost from the statute's text." Raymond James Fin. Servs., Inc. v. Phillips, 126 So.3d 186, 190 (Fla. 2013) (quoting Heart of Adoptions, Inc. v. J.A., 963 So.2d 189, 198 (Fla. 2007)). After all, "[a]n action for wrongful death is a purely statutory right." Toombs v. Alamo Rent-A-Car, Inc., 833 So.2d 109, 111 (Fla. 2002).

Section 768.19 defines the right of action for wrongful death as follows:
When the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, negligence, default, or breach of contract or warranty of any person, including those occurring on navigable waters, and the event would have entitled the person injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued, the person or watercraft that would have been liable in damages if death had not ensued shall be liable ...

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