Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

Most civil legal actions must be filed within prescribed periods, known as the statute of limitations and the statute of repose, or the plaintiffs may be barred from bringing suit.  However, there are exceptions, and in some cases, Maryland law may allow plaintiffs to pursue a their claim long after the allegedly negligent actions of the defendants.  In a June 25, 2018 Maryland wrongful death case, the Court of Appeals considered whether the plaintiffs could hold the defendants liable under an exception to the statute of repose.

The victim in the case needed access to the roof of a restaurant to repair an HVAC unit.  He placed a ladder on an exterior wall of the building that seemingly led to the roof, but instead, simply enclosed an open air area.  After mounting the wall, the plaintiff fell 20 feet over the other side, sustaining fatal injuries.  The plaintiffs filed suit against several defendants, including the owner and the manager of the shopping center in which the restaurant was located.  The building, however, was completed 22 years ago, which was beyond the 20 year limit imposed by the state of repose.  The defendants argued that the exception to the statute of repose asserted by the plaintiffs only applied in asbestos cases.

A statute of repose shields certain groups, designated by the legislature, from liability after a certain period of time.  Under Maryland’s statute of repose, a plaintiff is prohibited from bringing a claim for wrongful death resulting from an improvement to real property more than 20 years after the improvement.  There are exceptions to the statute listed in its subsections.  The first is a possession and control exception, which allows the plaintiff to bring an action against a defendant who was in actual possession and control of the property as owner, tenant, or otherwise when the injury occurred, despite the statute of repose.  While the other subsections of the statute relate to claims against manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos products, the possession and control exception makes no mention of them.

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In a tragic Maryland wrongful death case, five people residing in a house died from carbon monoxide poisoning in their sleep.  The source of the leak was a negligently installed bathroom ventilation fan, which was connected to a flue carrying carbon monoxide gas from the water heater to the roof vent.  On the evening they died, someone had left on the bathroom fan.  Due to the improper fan connection, the carbon monoxide entered the rooms occupied by the victims.

The spouses and children of the victims brought suit, alleging negligence claims against the home warranty company that covered repairs to appliances in the house, two independent contractors with which the home warranty company contracted to do the repairs, and other defendants.  The trial court ruled that the home warranty contract absolved the independent contractors from any duty to address rust and holes in or around the flue pipes, and it granted summary judgment in favor of the independent contractor defendants.  The plaintiffs appealed the matter to the higher court.

In Maryland, negligence actions generally require proof of the elements of duty, breach, causation, and damages.  In reviewing whether the trial court erred by finding the independent contractor defendants did not owe a duty to the victims, the appeals court looked at the provisions of the contract between the home warranty company and the homeowners, as well as the agreements between the home warranty company and the independent contractors.  The court held that nothing in either of the agreements limited or controlled the work that the independent contractors could perform.  As a result, the home warranty company did not control the independent contractors, and nothing in the agreements precluded the existence of any other duty owed by the contractors to the victims.

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Maryland law generally allows victims of negligence to pursue compensation from those responsible.  In some cases, however, remedies may be limited or damages capped.  In an April 12, 2018 Maryland wrongful death case, the Court of Appeals considered whether a multi-million dollar jury verdict should be reduced, and which defendants should be responsible for the judgment.

The case arose out of the murder of a Maryland state prisoner by another prisoner while they were both in State custody.  The parents of the victim brought suit against the State of Maryland and several of the correctional officers supervising the prisoners.

After a trial, the jury returned a verdict against the State based on its finding that certain correctional officers were negligent, and a verdict against one of the defendants who was found grossly negligent.  In total, the jury awarded approximately $18.5 million in noneconomic damages to the plaintiffs.  However, the trial court reduced the awards due to Maryland’s statutory caps, and it also denied the plaintiffs’ motion to include the State in the judgment against the one defendant found grossly negligent.  These decisions were appealed and became the major issues in the Court of Appeals case.

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Certain kinds of injuries may not be discovered for many years.  In many of these cases, Maryland law provides relief to the victims by allowing them to bring a negligence claim once they realize they have been injured.  In a March 28, 2018 case, the plaintiff filed a Maryland personal injury case against a manufacturing corporation, among others, alleging that he was exposed to asbestos contained in components it manufactured and supplied in 1970.  After his death, his estate was substituted as a party.  The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.  The matter was then brought before the Court of Appeals of Maryland.

The plaintiff in the case worked as a steamfitter.  In 1970, he worked on steam piping that connected two turbines, which were installed at the same time.  The turbines were insulated with materials containing asbestos.  In 2013, the plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma and filed suit the next year against multiple defendants, including the defendant who was responsible for constructing the turbines.  The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the statute of repose as currently enacted.  The plaintiff responded that his claims arose in 1970, prior to the enactment of the current statute, and as a result, it could not apply retroactively to his claims.

A statute of repose is essentially a deadline cutting off any exceptions that allow plaintiffs to bring suit after the ordinary deadline under the statute of limitations has passed.  The discovery rule is one such exception that allows a plaintiff to bring an action three years from the date he knew or reasonably should have known of the wrong.

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Semi-trucks and other large commercial vehicles can cause serious damage, injuries, and even death upon a collision with a passenger car.  A February 12, 2018 wrongful death case before the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland arose after a woman died in a car accident involving a cement truck.  The victim’s family brought a personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit against the cement truck company, arguing that it was overloaded.  When the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, the plaintiffs appealed.

At the time of the accident, the victim was driving on a two-way road while the surface was wet with rain and snow.  As she attempted to give way to an oncoming emergency vehicle, she lost control of her car and crossed over the center line into oncoming traffic.  Her vehicle was struck by a loaded cement mixer delivery truck owned by the defendant.  The cement truck, weighing more than 60,000 pounds, was determined to be over the allowable weight limit of 10,000 pounds for the road on which it was traveling.  The driver was also going about five miles over the posted speed limit.

The trial court granted summary judgment on the basis that the victim’s vehicle crossing into the oncoming traffic lane was the proximate cause of the accident, implicitly finding that the defendant’s actions did not cause the accident.  The plaintiffs argued that the defendant’s violation of the weight restriction was evidence of its negligence, and they alleged that the violation contributed to the victim’s injuries and death.

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Exposure to asbestos-containing products is associated with serious illnesses such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, particularly in people who have had occupational exposure.  In a November 20, 2017 wrongful death action before the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, the issue was whether the plaintiffs had produced sufficient evidence to create a question of fact for a jury to decide.  After the trial court had granted a summary judgment motion in favor of the defendants, the plaintiffs appealed.

The decedent in the case had worked at a shipyard for many years as a machinist and mechanic.  His duties frequently involved removing and replacing insulation, which often contained asbestos, on large commercial and military ships.  The decedent filed a complaint in 2004 against the defendants, an asbestos company and an asbestos settlement trust.  When he passed away in 2013, the case was amended to include a survival action claim and a wrongful death claim on behalf of his spouse and son.

The plaintiffs did not present direct evidence of the particular insulation companies that worked closely with the decedent.  They relied on the inference that the sheer number of ships on which the decedent had worked in close proximity to employees with known exposure to asbestos dust, combined with evidence that the defendants had a presence at the shipyard, was sufficient to allow the case to survive a summary judgment motion.

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If a negligent driver doesn’t have adequate insurance to fully compensate you for the loss you suffered in an accident, you may have to seek uninsured or underinsured coverage from your own insurance company. You can avoid some frustration by hiring an experienced Maryland car accident attorney to advance your claim and pursue damages in court upon a denial, as the plaintiffs did in a November 3, 2017 case before the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland. After their insurance company denied coverage for the wrongful death of their son, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against them in court.

The victim in the case was killed on the job by a motorist as he was directing traffic in a construction zone. The company for which the victim worked was insured by the defendant. The surviving family members sought to collect underinsured motor vehicle benefits from the defendant, after the motorist’s insurance coverage of $100,000 had been paid out and was exhausted. The defendant denied the claim, alleging that the employer’s policy with the defendant did not provide uninsured or underinsured coverage for its employees or their survivors.

Generally, Maryland courts will first look at the insurance policy contract to determine the rights and obligations of the parties, interpreting the plain meaning of the language.  Only when the language is ambiguous may the court consider evidence outside the context of the contract.

In a Maryland wrongful death action, family members of an accident victim seek compensation for the loss of their loved one.  The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently examined the statutory time limits to bring a wrongful death claim in a September 1, 2017 case.  The decedent in the case had been repairing an HVAC unit on the roof of a Maryland restaurant when he fell 20 feet, suffering fatal injuries.  The decedent’s survivors filed a wrongful death action, alleging negligence and premises liability claims against the shopping center, the property management company, and the restaurant.  After the circuit court ruled that Maryland’s statute of repose barred the plaintiffs’ claims, they appealed to the higher court. 

In Maryland, the statute of limitations provides that a person must file a wrongful death claim arising out of premises liability within three years of the date of accrual of the cause of action.  The statute of repose, however, limits that period to no later than 20 years from the date that the defective and unsafe condition of the property was available for its intended use.  The statute of repose also includes four subsections that indicate situations in which the 20-year limitation would not apply.  The first subsection provides an exemption when the defendant was in actual possession and control of the property as owner, tenant, or otherwise when the injury occurred, as the defendants were in the current case.  The remaining three subsections relate to certain asbestos manufacturers and suppliers.  These four subsections are linked by the conjunction “or.”

The question for the court on appeal was whether the “or” should be interpreted as disjunctive, indicating four separate exceptions, or conjunctive, indicating that the defendant must be in actual possession of the property as well as meet the asbestos-related requirements provided in the other three subsections.  To decide the matter, the court looked at the legislative history, prior amendments to the statute, and case law describing the purpose of the statute.

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In some negligence actions, a defendant’s duty of care can arise from a law enacted to protect the plaintiff and others similarly situated.  In a July 25, 2017 case, the plaintiff brought a Maryland wrongful death action against a fitness center after her husband died from cardiac arrest while playing basketball there.  The plaintiff alleged that the defendant had a duty to use the automated external defibrillator (AED) that it had installed at its facility, pursuant to statutory requirements.

The decedent had been playing basketball at the defendant’s facility when he suddenly collapsed.  A fitness instructor employed by the defendant began to administer CPR, while other people called 911.  Although the facility had an AED that was just outside the doors of the basketball court, and despite the fact that the fitness instructor had 20 years of experience in administering life support and resuscitation measures, including the use of an AED, the fitness instructor did not retrieve the AED or ask anyone to retrieve it for her.  When the paramedics arrived, they were notified of the defendant’s AED and used it on the decedent, but they were unsuccessful in resuscitating him.

To prove negligence per se, the plaintiff must show the violation of a law designed to protect a specific class of persons that includes the plaintiff, and the violation must have proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury.  The primary issue before the Court of Special Appeals, therefore, was whether the Maryland statute at issue prescribed a duty of care requiring the defendant to use an AED to provide cardiac defibrillation to someone who has suffered sudden cardiac arrest.

The court first looked at the language of the statute.  The statute at issue was designed to encourage the installation of AEDs in places of business and public accommodation, and ensure that the devices are operable and are used by people who are properly trained to use them.  The statute requires a facility with an available AED to possess a valid certificate from the EMS Board.  To obtain a certificate, the facility must qualify by meeting several requirements, which the defendant in the case had done.

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In many cases, the law allows for family members to pursue compensation for the death or injury of their loved one by bringing an action against those responsible.  The Court of Appeals of Maryland recently examined a wrongful death action in an opinion issued on May 22, 2017.  The plaintiffs in the case were the mother and the minor son of the decedent.

In 2009, the victim in the case had been shot and killed by the defendant, while he was working as the defendant’s farmhand.  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant buried the victim’s remains in order to conceal his wrongdoing.  In 2015, the plaintiffs filed their complaint against the defendant.  After the circuit court dismissed their claims as time-barred, the plaintiffs appealed.

A wrongful death action is brought for the benefit of the surviving family members to compensate for the losses occasioned by their family member’s death.  Maryland law provides that the time period for bringing a wrongful death action that accrues on behalf of a minor plaintiff is tolled during the period of minority.  On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the wrongful death action of the victim’s son was tolled during his period of minority, pursuant to this rule.  The court agreed, holding that the plain language of the rule provided for the tolling of a wrongful death claim until the age of majority, from which time the wrongful death action must be filed within three years.

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