A courtroom drama over a woman suing herself

February 19, 2015

CBS NEWS

An unusual lawsuit in Utah is raising eyebrows among some legal and financial experts: A woman is suing herself in a wrongful death case.

Earlier this week, the Utah Court of Appeals ruled that Barbara Bagley could indeed begin legal proceedings against herself. Bagley wants to charge herself with negligence in a 2011 car accident that killed her husband.

She was driving the vehicle in the Nevada desert at the time when she hit a sagebrush and flipped the Range Rover over. Her husband was thrown from the car and later died from his injuries.

Bagley claims she was negligent for not keeping control of her vehicle and for “failing to maintain a proper lookout” while driving.

A state Third District judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, but it was reinstated last week in a unanimous ruling by the Utah Court of Appeals.

Bagley’s attorneys say she is advancing this lawsuit for the benefit of her husband’s estate because creditors will have to be paid before the widow can receive any money as her husband’s only heir.

But other lawyers are looking to once again dismiss the suit, saying if it is allowed to continue, a jury would then be called upon to figure out if Bagley’s negligence caused her own trauma.

“The jury would be asked to determine how much money will fairly compensate Barbara Bagley for the harm she caused herself,” attorneys Peter Christensen and Kathryn Tunacik said in their motion. “The jury will be highly confused — it cannot order a person to compensate herself.”

John Holcomb, professor in the Department of Business Ethics and Legal Studies at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, told CBS MoneyWatch the lawsuit is “quirky and also clever.”

Bagley, he noted, plays multiple roles in this legal drama. She may be the two plaintiffs in the case, as heir and representative of the estate, but she’s also the defendant.

“Bagley as the two plaintiffs is really trying to get Bagley’s insurance carrier to pay for Bagley’s negligence,” Holcomb said. “You can see why several states would see such a suit as unjust, as a victory would allow the plaintiff to be rewarded for her own negligence. That raises an ethical question of unjust reward and lack of deservedness.”

He also observed that the Utah Court of Appeals issued a unanimous decision for the lawsuit to proceed, basing its opinion on state law. But that doesn’t necessarily resolve the bizarre legal wrangling the case presents.

“Yes, the creditors will have first call on any money in the estate,” Holcomb continued, “but they would in any case, so any damages paid would probably mainly benefit Bagley as heir, depending on debts owed by the deceased.”

“Had there been a disinterested or less interested party appointed as representative of the estate, and that party had brought suit,” he said, “there would be fewer questions raised about an unjust lawsuit and one not based purely on the enrichment of Bagley.”