Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

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. roof

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. basketball

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

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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Injuries that are caused by the careless actions of more than one person may give rise to legal recourse against multiple defendants.  In a March 17, 2017 wrongful death decision, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland considered whether the county was liable for the death of a two-year old child in foster care.  The plaintiff filed the appeal after the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the county.blinds

In 2007, as a result of the county’s determination that the child was in need of assistance, the circuit court ordered that he be placed in a foster home.  At the foster home, the child’s room had a window covered with venetian blinds, which were controlled by two single-tassel cords.  Although the blind cords were usually hung on a nail at the top of the window, the child became entangled in the blind cords and subsequently died from strangulation in 2009.  The biological mother of the child filed a wrongful death action against the county for failing to properly supervise and protect the child.  The circuit court ruled that the facts did not give rise to a common law or statutory duty that the county owed to the child.

In Maryland, a negligence action requires a plaintiff to establish four elements:  a duty owed by the defendant, a breach of that duty, a causal relationship between the breach and the harm suffered, and damages.  Generally, government entities do not owe a tort duty to the world at-large.  A government entity can be liable in tort, however, if it takes an affirmative step to create a duty.  That duty can be created in two ways:  (1) legally, by adopting a statute; or (2) factually, by creating a special relationship.

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There are important rules regarding the location of the court where a case is heard, known as venue.  The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently discussed this issue in the context of a wrongful death action in Smith v. Salim (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Dec. 27, 2016).crossed hands

In Smith, the plaintiffs’ young daughter died when her pacemaker’s battery expired.  The plaintiffs brought suit against five defendants, including the doctor, the hospital where the pacemaker was implanted, the hospital where the child was treated before her death, the manufacturer of the pacemaker, and the service monitoring the pacemaker.  The defendants filed a motion to transfer venue from Baltimore City to Anne Arundel County, claiming that it was the single common venue for all five defendants.  The circuit court granted the motion over the plaintiffs’ objection, and the plaintiffs appealed.

In Maryland, CJP § 6-201 provides that if there is more than one defendant in a civil action, and there is no single venue applicable to all of the defendants, all may be sued in a county in which any one of them could be sued, subject to the provisions of CJP § 6-202.  Under CJP § 6-202, the action may be brought in the county where the plaintiff resides, if the defendant is a corporation that has no principal place of business in Maryland.  In Smith, the defendants argued that the provisions of § 6-202 take priority over § 6-201.  The plaintiffs contended that neither section has priority over the other and that § 6-202 merely presents options for alternative venues to those available under § 6-201.

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In a recent personal injury case, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland explained aspects of liability and duty concerning the participation of a private entity in the design and construction of government roadways.  The plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against a cement company, the county, and the state of Maryland after her husband was killed by a tractor trailer.  When the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims against the defendants, the plaintiff brought her appeal to the higher court.bicycle crash

In this case, the plaintiff’s husband was cycling on a state road designated as a bicycle route.  He entered with the right of way into an intersection that did not have any traffic light.  A tractor trailer leaving a cement plant entered the intersection at the same time, striking the plaintiff’s husband.  In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that the intersection was negligently designed and constructed to funnel the bicycle lane into the acceleration lane for vehicles turning right onto the state road.  Although the cement company did not own the tractor-trailer involved in the accident, the plaintiff claimed that the cement company owed a duty in tort with regard to its participation in the design and construction of the intersection.

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In a newly issued decision, the Court of Appeals of Maryland settled the question of whether surviving family members can bring a wrongful death action based on the same alleged conduct as a personal injury claim won by the decedent before his death. In Spangler v. McQuitty (Md. July 12, 2016), the court ultimately held that the decedent’s beneficiaries are not barred from filing a subsequent wrongful death action, despite a judgment on the merits in the decedent’s personal injury claim. The court further held that when only one joint defendant is released from liability by the injured person, the other defendants are not also discharged. Accordingly, such a release does not preclude a wrongful death action brought by the survivors against other defendants that were not parties to the release.wrongful death

In Spangler, the mother suffered a placental abruption, causing severe injuries to her child during his birth as well as cerebral palsy. The parents of the minor child sued their obstetrician and medical practice group for failing to secure the mother’s informed consent for treatment. Several of the defendants settled with the plaintiffs before trial. After trial, the jury awarded the child approximately $13 million in damages, including future medical expenses. Although the verdict was upheld, the jury award was ultimately reduced after subsequent appeals.

During the appeal litigation of his personal injury claim, the child died. His parents filed a wrongful death action against the defendants under the Maryland wrongful death statute, based on the same underlying facts as the personal injury action regarding the obstetrician’s failure to obtain informed consent. The circuit court dismissed the case, concluding that it was precluded by the previous judgment. That decision was reversed by the Court of Special Appeals, and the case subsequently came before the Maryland Court of Appeals.

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In a recent appeal, a Maryland plaintiff won her right to pursue a wrongful death claim against a nursing home after her mother died under its care. Specifically, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland in Futurecare Northpoint, LLC v. Peeler (Md. Ct. Spec. App. July 28, 2016) addressed the issue of whether wrongful death beneficiaries are bound by a valid arbitration agreement executed by the decedent before her death. The lower court denied the defendant nursing facility’s motion to compel arbitration of the claims, and the defendant appealed.elderly couple

In Futurecare, the decedent signed a contract upon her admission to the defendant’s nursing facility, agreeing to resolve any claims arising out of her care through binding arbitration. A section of that agreement also extended the arbitration to claims of the decedent’s beneficiaries and survivors and waived their right to a jury trial. After the decedent’s death, her daughter filed a wrongful death claim against the defendant for medical malpractice, which the defendant argued was subject to arbitration pursuant to the agreement.

Arbitration is a process whereby parties voluntarily agree to substitute a private tribunal for the public tribunal (the state courts) that would be otherwise available to them. On appeal, the court cited Maryland’s arbitration statute, which provides that a written contract to submit to arbitration any controversy arising between the parties in the future is valid and enforceable. The court then explained that an arbitration agreement cannot impose obligations on persons who are not parties to it and do not agree to its terms. As an exception to that rule, however, a third party may be required to arbitrate if he or she is acting in a representative capacity on behalf of a party to the agreement. For example, many causes of action that “survive” a party’s death may be brought by the decedent’s personal representative for the benefit of the estate.

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The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently reviewed a lower court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of a physician-defendant in a medical malpractice case.  In Puppolo v. Sivaraman, the plaintiff’s wife died as the result of the administration of heparin, an anticoagulant used to prevent blood clotting during dialysis.  Heparin is not typically administered to patients with platelet levels below 50, since there is a high risk that heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, a serious and sometimes fatal condition, may occur.  On December 23, 2008, although the plaintiff’s wife had a platelet level of 1, she was given two doses of heparin, and she died shortly thereafter.needle-1555049-639x852

The plaintiff brought a wrongful death claim against his wife’s doctor, alleging that he breached his duty of care by administering the heparin to his wife, or allowing it to be administered to her.  In order to establish medical malpractice, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a duty of care to the victim, the defendant breached the duty of care, the defendant’s actions caused the injury to the victim, and damages were incurred.  Generally, expert medical testimony is required to prove the standard of care and what constitutes a breach of that standard.

In Puppolo, the evidence indicated that the doctor did not write an order for heparin and that one of the other resident doctors working in the hospital ordered the prescription.  The plaintiff nevertheless contended that the defendant was liable for the resident’s breach of the standard of care under the borrowed servant rule.  The lower court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that there was nothing to support the plaintiff’s assertion that the defendant ordered, directed, approved, or controlled the ordering of heparin.

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The Maryland Court of Appeals recently published an important opinion that will have consequences for future asbestos litigation and personal injury claims. In a victory for asbestos plaintiffs, the court’s ruling in May v. Air & Liquid Sys. Corp. (Md. Dec. 18, 2015) found that in limited circumstances, a manufacturer has a duty to warn workers of asbestos-containing third-party replacement component parts under theories of negligence and strict liability.asbestos-1522143-640x480

In May, the plaintiff replaced asbestos gaskets and packing while in the United States Navy from 1956 until 1976, which exposed him to airborne asbestos fibers. However, he was not exposed to the asbestos gaskets and packing that the defendants used, but to asbestos-containing replacement parts acquired from third parties. It is undisputed that the instruction manuals did not contain any warnings regarding the danger of inhaling asbestos dust or directions to wear protective gear. In January 2012, the plaintiff learned he was suffering from mesothelioma, a form of cancer that is commonly caused by asbestos exposure. The plaintiff initially filed suit against the defendants, and his wife continued the action upon his death. The defendants moved for summary judgment, contending that they had no duty to warn of the dangers of third-party asbestos-containing replacement parts that they did not manufacture or place into the stream of commerce. The trial court granted the motion in favor of the defendants, and Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

In Maryland, failure to warn claims may be brought under a negligence or strict liability theory. Negligence claims require a showing of a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff. In determining the existence of a duty, the court considers many factors, including the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant, and others.

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