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Families Feud Over Unusual Georgia Wrongful Death Lawsuit

In October 2007, Byron Trent, age 16 at the time, died after an auto accident with a Locust Grove police van. Trent was on his way to apply for a job at a pizza restaurant when a police van veered into oncoming traffic.

Trent’s parents, Rebecca Lynne deVente and Byron Keith Pyles of Henry County, are suing the officer who was driving the van and the city police department in a wrongful death lawsuit. However, another family has also filed a wrongful death suit over Trent’s death. Five months after his death, teenager Heidi Flora gave birth to Trent’s daughter. Before the child was even born, Heidi’s mother had filed a declaratory judgment action against Trent’s parents; she wanted a ruling that Trent’s daughter is his only heir and potential claimant in the wrongful death lawsuit.

At first, Trent’s parents contested that he was the father. Now paternity testing has shown that he was indeed the father of Heidi’s daughter Allison. However, Trent’s parents are still fighting the legal battle.

“There’s never been a situation that I’ve found in Georgia involving the same fact pattern,” said Frederick Burkey, attorney for Trent’s family.

The Fulton Country Daily Report reported last week: On behalf of Trent’s parents, Burkey has argued that in order for Allison to fit the definition of a surviving child under the wrongful death statute, her family needs to show that the baby was “quick” in the womb at the time of Trent’s death. Georgia case law has defined “quickening” as the point at which a fetus is first capable of moving within the mother’s womb, generally putting that time between the 10th week and the fourth month of pregnancy. Burkey argues that a just result would be one in which Trent’s parents divided any recovery in a wrongful death lawsuit with baby Allison.

Henry County Superior Courty Judge Brain Amero granted summary judgment for the Floras, ruling that baby Allison has the exclusive right to recover damages in the wrongful death lawsuit. The Court of Appeals also found in favor of the Floras.

Court of Appeals Judge Sara L. Doyle wrote: “To require Flora to demonstrate that the child was ‘quick’ at the time of her father’s death, as urged by [Trent’s] parents, would ignore the practical reality that there is today a classic wrongful death scenario — a living child seeking to recover for the death of her father. Thus, the requirement to demonstrate quickness is not consistent with the explicit statutory language that ‘a child … may recover for the homicide of the … parent … .’ Further, because the nature of a wrongful death action is derivative of the decedent’s right of action, to ignore the laws of descent and distribution would run counter to the essence of a wrongful death claim.

“Simply because the parents wish to share in any wrongful death award does not render an inequitable result in light of the priority ordinarily given to children by the statute, which makes a wrongful death action exclusive to the party entitled to bring it.”

Trent’s parents plan to petition the Georgia Supreme Court to consider the case. Burkey, their attorney, said, “It’s not about the money. They want to know what on earth happened.”

In Georgia, a surviving spouse of the deceased may file a wrongful death lawsuit. When there is no spouse, a surviving child may pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. A parent may file a wrongful death lawsuit only in the absence of a spouse as well as children. If you need the expertise of a attorney, call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.