Alabama Supreme Court Holds an Administrator ad Litem Does Not Have Authority to Pursue Wrongful Death Claims

The Alabama Supreme Court recently issued a decision in the case of Ex parte Continental Motors, Inc. that will have a significant impact on the approach insurers must take in resolving some wrongful death claims.  In Ex parte Continental Motors, Inc., numerous plaintiffs filed a wrongful-death action in Mobile County under §6–5–410 of the Alabama Code on behalf of the heirs of individuals who died in an airplane crash in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  The crash was allegedly a result of a defective starter-adapter assembly that had been manufactured by Continental Motors, Inc. (“CMI”) and/or the failure of the airplane’s engine, which had been refurbished by RAM Aircraft, LP (“RAM”).  Two of the decedents were citizens of Honduras and Guatemala.

On February 29, 2012, representatives of the two Honduran and Guatemalan decedents filed in the Mobile Probate Court petitions for the appointment of an administrator ad litem for each of the decedents’ estates pursuant to §43–2–250 of the Alabama Code.  On March 2, 2012, the probate court entered identical orders appointing an administrator ad litem for each of the decedents’ estates “with the … limited powers, duties, and responsibilities … to pursue the claims of [the decedents], or [their] estate[s], as set forth in [the wrongful-death action] before the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama.”

CMI and RAM challenged the authority of the administrator ad litem to pursue the wrongful-death claims.  The plaintiffs relied on the case of Affinity Hospital, LLC v. Williford, 21 So.3d 712 (Ala. 2009) for their argument that an administrator ad litem has the authority to pursue a wrongful-death action.  Citing Justice Bolin’s special concurrence in Golden Gate National Senior Care, LLC v. Roser, 94 So.3d 365 (Ala. 2012), CMI and RAM argued an administrator ad litem appointed under §43–2–250 lacks the capacity of a “personal representative” under Alabama’s wrongful death statute.  In his special concurrence in Golden Gate, Justice Bolin thoroughly explained why a wrongful-death action “may be instituted only by a personal representative, not by an administrator ad litem.” In short, Justice Bolin concluded an administrator ad litem appointed under §43–2–250 is not a “personal representative” for purposes of Alabama’s wrongful-death statute, because §43–2–250 allows a probate court to appoint an administrator ad litem only “when the estate of a deceased person must be represented and there is no executor or administrator of such estate” and “when the estate of a deceased person must be represented and the executor or administrator is interested adversely to the estate.” Justice Bolin explained:  “The decedent’s estate is not interested in a wrongful-death action or in any proceeds derived from such an action. None of the proceeds pass through the estate, which would make them subject to the claims of creditors. The proceeds pass to the decedent’s heirs; this is true whether the administration is testate or intestate.”  (citations omitted).  Justice Bolin also explained that Williford, which was relied upon by the plaintiffs, was not authoritative on the issue because the absence of express language in §43–2–250 of the Alabama Code forbidding an administrator ad litem from taking such action does not “necessarily mean that the law does in fact empower an administrator ad litem to prosecute a wrongful-death action.”

Based on the reasoning set forth in Justice Bolin’s special concurrence in Golden Gate, the Alabama Supreme Court concluded an administrator ad litem does not have the authority to pursue claims under Alabama’s wrongful death statute.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court found the circuit court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the wrongful-death claims brought on behalf of the two decedent’s heirs, and CMI and RAM were entitled to have the wrongful death claims dismissed.

The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision in Ex parte Continental Motors, Inc. will have a significant impact for claims professionals adjusting pre-suit wrongful death claims, particularly where no estate has been opened by the claimants.  Where previously the case law suggested the appointment of an administrator ad litem was an acceptable approach, the Supreme Court has now clarified only a personal representative has the lawful authority to pursue and, perhaps more importantly, release any claims for wrongful death.  It is now clear the only safe practice is to require the releasing party be lawfully appointed as personal representative of the estate.