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Arman v. Chi St. Vincent Hot Springs

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division IV

April 3, 2019

STEVE ARMAN, SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF PHILIP LEWIS ARMAN, DECEASED APPELLANT
v.
CHI ST. VINCENT HOT SPRINGS D/B/A ST. VINCENT HOSPITAL HOT SPRINGS; CHI ST. VINCENT HOSPITAL HOT SPRINGS D/B/A ST. VINCENT HOSPITAL HOT SPRINGS; AND FIRST INITIATIVES INSURANCE LTD. APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM THE GARLAND COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 26CV-16-449] HONORABLE LYNN WILLIAMS, JUDGE

          Cearley Law Firm, P.A., by: Robert M. Cearly, Jr., for appellant.

          Wright, Lindsey & Jennings LLP, by: Edwin L. Lowther, Jr., Gary D. Marts, Jr., and David C. Jung, for appellees.

          BRANDON J. HARRISON, JUDGE.

         Steve Arman, acting as the special administrator of the estate of his father, Philip Lewis Arman, appeals the Garland County Circuit Court's dismissal of his tort complaint against defendants Chi St. Vincent Hot Springs and Chi St. Vincent Hospital Hot Springs (collectively St. Vincent). He claims that he was properly clothed with the authority to file the tort complaint when he did so and that the circuit court erred by concluding otherwise. We reverse the dismissal, reinstate the complaint, and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         Philip Arman died testate in May 2014, and his will was probated in Garland County. The docket number the circuit court clerk assigned to the estate was PR-14-486. The sole devisee under the probated will was the Philip L. Arman Trust. On 22 April 2015, the Garland County Circuit Court (Probate Division, Division 1) entered a final order of distribution. See Ark. Code Ann. § 28-53-104 (Repl. 2012). That order discharged the responsibilities of the estate's personal representative, who was Community First Trust Company. Community First Trust Company also served as trustee of the Philip L. Arman Trust. No party disputes that the April 22 order closed the estate. No one appealed the order. Consequently, the April 22 order judicially concluded matters related to Philip Arman's estate unless someone established a need to reopen the final order of distribution. Ark. Code Ann. § 28-53-105(a) (Repl. 2012).

         After one year had passed, Steve Arman filed (on 12 May 2016) a petition to appoint a special administrator. The petition mistakenly stated that "no estate had been filed . . . in relation to the decedent." The circuit court entered an order appointing Steve as special administrator the same day the petition was filed. The clerk assigned the petition case number PR-16-295 (Probate Division, Division 1). The cover sheet was filed on 11 May 2016 and had the box "original" checked-marked. The "Re-open" box, another option on the cover sheet, was not checked.

         Seven days later, Steve filed an amended petition to have a special administrator appointed. In the amended petition, he offered the correction that "a Probate action was previously filed in this court as Case No. 26PR-14-486-1, and an Estate was opened and closed without liquidating the survival and wrongful death claims." The corrective May 18 amended petition asked the circuit court to appoint Steve as special administrator pursuant to § 28-53-119 (Repl. 2012), which governs the reopening of estates.[1] That same day, the circuit court entered an amended order appointing Steve as special administrator to "perform all necessary duties and acts required to liquidate the contingent claim of the Estate and statutory wrongful death beneficiaries[.]" The amended order also states that "no estate has been opened" and that

[t]he Court finds that The Special Administrator's basis for requesting appointment is that a previous probate action was opened and closed without liquidating the survival and wrongful death claims of the Estate and its statutory beneficiaries. An immediate need exists for the appointment of a special [administrator] for the reasons stated in the Amended Petition.

         The crux of this appeal is whether Steve had the legal authority to commence a tort action in the civil division of the circuit court on behalf of Philip Arman's estate and for the benefit of the beneficiaries in the wrongful-death statute. St. Vincent has argued before, and does so here again, that Steve lacked authority to file the tort complaint because the May 18 amended order in the probate division did not properly reopen his father's probated estate, which had to be done before Steve could file the tort complaint in the civil division on May 19. Therefore, argues St. Vincent, the circuit court correctly dismissed the tort complaint. And the dismissal with prejudice was correct, St. Vincent says, because the applicable statute of limitations has run, meaning there is no time left for the tort suit to be properly (re)commenced.[2] Steve, of course, completely disagrees.

          II.

         Was Steve properly clothed with the authority to file the tort complaint under the circumstances? On de novo review, we conclude that he was and now explain our answer. Johnson v. Greene Acres Nursing Home Ass'n, 364 Ark. 306, 309, 219 S.W.3d 138, 140 (2005) (standard of review).

         Steve petitioned the probate division of the circuit court and cited section 28-53-119 as the authority by which the court could appoint him as a special administrator of his father's estate to pursue unliquidated tort claims that were not addressed before the estate was closed in 2015. Section 28-53-119(a) expressly allows a circuit court to reopen a probated estate for an interested party at any time when property of the estate is discovered, when a necessary act remains unperformed by the personal representative, or "for any other proper cause[.]" Ark. Code Ann. § 28-53-119(a); see also Ark. Code Ann. ยง 28-48-103(a) ("For good cause shown, a special administrator may be appointed[.]"). So the probate division of the circuit court had the authority to appoint someone for that limited purpose, and ...


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