Indiana Court of Appeals Revives Stepchildren’s Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Stepmother Based on Indiana’s Trial Rules on Substitution of Parties

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently revived a dismissed wrongful death case brought by two stepchildren against their stepmother for the death of their father. In Estate of Bichler by Ivy v. Bichler, Jennifer Ivy and Tyler Bichler sued their stepmother, Wanda Bichler, for the death of their father, Jeffrey Bichler. Jennifer and Tyler alleged Wanda killed Jeffrey to collect on his $300,000 life insurance policy. The life insurance company had already filed an interpleader action in federal court depositing the $300,000 in life insurance proceeds with the court. Wanda thereafter died, and after her death, two individuals were appointed as personal representatives of her estate and the life insurance proceeds were transferred to state court to be distributed pending the outcome of Jennifer and Tyler’s lawsuit. While Jennifer and Tyler amended their lawsuit to add a count for a state interpleader action for the life insurance proceeds, they did not name the personal representatives of Wanda’s Estate. Wanda’s Estate intervened in the lawsuit, noting Wanda, “who was the original Defendant in the action,” had passed. Wanda’s estate then moved to dismiss Jennifer and Tyler’s lawsuit pursuant to Indiana Trial Rules 12(B)(2) (lack of personal jurisdiction), 12(B)(6) (failure to state a claim), and 12(B)(7) (failure to join a necessary party) because Jennifer and Tyler had not named the personal representatives of Wanda’s Estate as defendants. Jennifer and Tyler opposed the motion and amended their complaint to add a claim for constructive trust, while continuing to name only Wanda as a defendant. The trial court granted Wanda’s Estate’s motion to dismiss under Trial Rule 12(B) and Jennifer and Tyler appealed.

On appeal the Indiana Court of Appeals first explained that a dismissal based upon a plaintiff’s failure to substitute a personal representative of a defendant’s estate as a defendant should not be analyzed under Indiana Trial Rule 12, but rather Indiana Trial Rules 25 and 41(E). Under Indiana’s Survival Statute, “[i]f an individual who is… liable in a cause of action dies, the cause of action survives and may be brought… against the representative of the deceased party…” and it can also “be continued… against the legal representatives… of the deceased.” Ind. Code § 34-9-3-1. When a sole defendant dies in a case, the matter is stayed so that the proper parties can be substituted. Under Indiana Trial Rule 25, with the exception of a public official sued in an official capacity, a “motion for substitution may be made by the court, any party or by the successors or representatives of the deceased party…” Ind. R. Trial P. 25(A). Importantly, unlike Rule 25 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which states a case must be dismissed if the motion for substitution is not made within 90 days after service of a statement noting a party’s death, Indiana Trial Rule 25 does not include any time limitations for filing a motion to substitute. Nonetheless, a case is still subject to dismissal under Indiana Trial Rule 41(E) if a “Suggestion of Death” is filed putting everyone on notice that a defendant has died, and a plaintiff fails to comply with a court order setting a time to file a motion to substitute or otherwise fails to timely prosecute the action.

In this case, Wanda’s Estate did not file a Suggestion of Death but intervened in the action based upon Wanda’s passing. Contrary to Indiana Trial Rule 24(C), Wanda’s Estate did not note in its motion to intervene the claim, defense, or matter for which intervention was sought, and in its motion, Wanda’s Estate also referred to Wanda as “the original Defendant.” Jennifer and Tyler thought, reasonably so according to the Indiana Court of Appeals, that the intervention served as a substitution, but they also noted in their response to the motion to dismiss that Wanda’s Estate could be substituted if the trial court found such necessary. While noting that intervention and substitution are not the same thing, the Court of Appeals noted there is no reason an intervention cannot also serve as a substitution when the sole purpose of intervening is to replace a defendant. In any case, the Court of Appeals found Jennifer and Tyler did not fail to comply with any deadline under Indiana Trial Rules 25 or 41(E), and therefore, their case should not have been dismissed.

The Court of Appeals also found the trial court erred in granting the motion to dismiss based upon Indiana Trial Rule 12. As to Trial Rule 12(B)(2) (lack of personal jurisdiction), the Court noted that, while Wanda was no longer a party given her death, the trial court did not lose jurisdiction because the trial court had jurisdiction over Wanda while she was alive, there was no dispute as to the trial court’s jurisdiction over Wanda’s Estate, and the proceedings were merely suspended due to Wanda’s death. As to Trial Rule 12(B)(6) (failure to state a claim), which Wanda’s Estate argued was applicable because Jennifer and Tyler failed to name the real party in interest as a defendant under Indiana Trial Rule 17, the Court of Appeals noted (1) the complaint was facially sufficient and contained no facts relied upon by Wanda’s Estate, i.e., that Wanda had died, an estate had been opened for her, and personal representatives had been appointed, (2) Indiana Trial Rule 17 requires cases be prosecuted by plaintiffs that are the real parties in interest, not defendants, and (3) if a plaintiff has named the wrong defendant, the appropriate remedy is to name the right defendant, not dismiss the claim. As to Trial Rule 12(B)(7) (failure to join a necessary party), the Court of Appeals noted that Wanda’s Estate had already been joined as a party, and in any case, when joinder is feasible, the appropriate remedy is to join the missing party, not dismiss the case.

Accordingly, the Indiana Court of Appeals found the trial court erred when it dismissed Jennifer and Tyler’s complaint. The Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal and remanded the case to the trial court to allow Jennifer and Tyler an opportunity to substitute the personal representatives of Wanda’s Estate as defendants, with the trial court to review any subsequent failure of substitution under Indiana Trial Rules 25 and 41(E), not Trial Rule 12.

You can read the full opinion here.

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