CAN I SUE AN ESTATE? Estate of Hartwell v. Estate of Dunn et. al.

Quite simply the answer is yes. For those of us that are familiar with the Johnny Knoxville MTV show “Jack Ass”, we know who Ryan Dunn was. Ryan Dunn was Johnny Knoxville’s side-kick who became insanely popular and wealthy partaking in incredibly dangerous and juvenile stunts at the cost of his own personal well being for viewers’ entertainment. However in the early morning of June 20, 2011, after a night of binge drinking with his friend Zachery Hartwell, at a Pennsylvania Bar, the two drove off in Dunn’s Porsche 911 GT-3.

After reaching speeds in excess of 130 mph, the vehicle left the road and crashed into a tree instantly killing both the 34 year old Dunn and the 30 year old Hartwell. Toxicology reports indicated that Dunn, the driver, had blood alcohol levels of nearly .2%. Considering .08% is the legal limit in most jurisdictions this was well above the legal levels of intoxication.

What happens next?

As a NY estate lawyer I handle many estate cases that are embroiled in litigation. These cases can stem from issues ranging from will contests to chasing down an unscrupulous fiduciary that made off with proceeds of an estate. However, many instances involve estates concerning wrongful death, personal injury or medical malpractice.

In the case above and in cases like it, the first step is to get someone appointed fiduciary in each estate. Here, pursuant to each decedent’s last wills and testament, one executor will be appointed in Dunn’s Estate and another in Hartwell’s. Once appointed, a personal injury, wrongful death and/or medical malpractice action can commence as if both parties were still alive. As such, in this instance the passenger’s estate, Hartwell, will file suit against Dunn’s Estate for negligence and wrongful death.

On August 8, 2012, the Estate of Zachery Hartwell did in fact bring such an action against the Estate of Ryan Dunn as well as the bar that served both of them alcohol, Barnaby’s of America. While Dunn’s Estate will undoubtedly assert the defense of contributory negligence on Hartwell’s part for getting into a sports car with an inebriated driver, there is no question that Hartwell’s Estate will recover and recover big.

Once this case either settles or is tried, the recovery will then be approved by the Surrogate’s Court and compromised accordingly. Once compromised, the sum will become an asset of Hartwell’s Estate and be distributed according to his wishes pursuant to his last will and testament. This is another important example illustrating why having a will at any age is mandatory. Although Hartwell was only 30 years of age, without such a will his estate had the potential of becoming a mob scene. Without a valid will, a NY estate lawyer can only do so much. While we hope instances such as these never occur, as an experienced NY probate lawyer I always try to plan for both the unforeseeable and unthinkable.

I wish I could tell you instances such as these are rare but that would not be truthful. From my experience it is much better to have a will and not need one than to need one and not have one. If you or a family member is thinking about drafting or revising a will, feel free to speak with a NY estate lawyer today at the Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation.

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