Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

In many situations, the victims of negligence may recover their damages by filing a Maryland legal claim against those responsible.  One of the few exceptions concerns governmental immunity.  In a February 22, 2019 opinion, the Court of Special Appeals examined whether a local county could be sued under the circumstances presented in a Maryland wrongful death case.

In the summer of 2016, a 911 call center experienced a service outage in the county that lasted approximately one hour and forty-five minutes.  During the outage, the decedent suffered a medical emergency.  The plaintiffs alleged that they and other friends and family had called 911 repeatedly, for over an hour, but were unable to get through.  Eventually they were connected with emergency services and rescue personal subsequently responded to the scene.  Tragically, the decedent could not be revived, and he passed away.

In their suit, the plaintiffs claimed that the county was negligent in maintaining the air conditioning unit that had failed and caused the 911 service outage, which in turn, allegedly caused the decedent’s death.  The circuit court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, ruling that the county was immune from suit and that the county officials, named as individual defendants, did not owe a duty to the plaintiffs or the decedent.  The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the higher court.

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In some cases, personal injuries arise out of the negligent actions of another person or entity.  Victims generally have legal recourse against those responsible for their injuries, unless the law provides for immunity or another exception.  In a November 28, 2018 Maryland wrongful death case, the plaintiff sued a police officer and police chief, alleging that they negligently caused the death of her daughter.  The defendants argued that they were entitled to immunity and could not be sued for damages.  After the circuit court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the plaintiff appealed to the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

In the case, the victim had called 911 and the police officer was dispatched to her apartment building.  The officer attempted to enter the building, but found that the door was locked.  He left without making contact with the victim.  At some point, the victim went to the roof of her apartment building and either jumped, fell, or was pushed off.  She was pronounced dead at the scene.

The plaintiff alleged that the police were negligent in failing to investigate the 911 call and failing to enter the building and make contact with the victim.  The plaintiff also contended that the police did not provide adequate training or supervision for officers responding to 911 calls.  The issues on appeal centered on the public duty doctrine and public official immunity.

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To succeed in a Maryland negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had an obligation, or duty, to act in a certain manner according to the law.  Generally, most people, businesses, and other entities have a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid injury to another.  In a December 3, 2018 Maryland wrongful death case, however, the issue of duty was more complicated.

The defendants in the case were Maryland police officers who had responded to a report of domestic assault involving the plaintiffs’ mother and her fiancé.  The officers were outside of the house with the mother when her fiancé began firing gunshots at them from the upstairs window.  The plaintiffs’ mother died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head.

The plaintiffs brought a civil suit against the officers, seeking to hold them liable for their roles leading to the murder of the plaintiffs’ mother by her fiancé.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs for $850,000, finding that the officers were negligent in failing to prevent their mother’s death.  The defendants appealed, and the matter came before the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

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The untimely death of loved one can be especially tragic if it was likely preventable.  In a November 2, 2018 case, the surviving daughters and estate of the decedent filed a Maryland wrongful death action against an asbestos product manufacturer after their mother passed away from malignant mesothelioma.  The manufacturer supplied asbestos products to the company that employed the decedent’s husband, who used them for over thirty years in the course of his job.  The asbestos products created dust that covered his clothes at the end of the work day.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged that their mother’s malignant mesothelioma was caused by her exposure to asbestos fibers from the defendant’s products when she shook out and washed her husband’s clothing every day.  For the defendant to be held liable for its negligence, the defendant must have had a responsibility, or duty, to the victim to act accordingly.  The plaintiffs in the case claimed that the defendant was negligent in failing to warn the decedent of the harm caused by asbestos exposure.

After the plaintiffs presented their proof at trial, the defendant moved for judgment.  The defendant argued that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that it owed a legal duty to warn household members of the dangers of asbestos exposure.  The trial court agreed and entered judgment in favor of the defendant, and the plaintiffs appealed.

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Under the Maryland Fire and Rescue Company Act, entities that provide emergency services may not be held liable for simple negligence in a civil lawsuit.  However, they may face civil liability if their actions are grossly negligent.  In an October 1, 2018 Maryland wrongful death case, the jury found two paramedics were grossly negligent in responding to the decedent’s emergency.  Despite the jury verdict, the judge entered a judgment in favor of the defendants, concluding that the evidence was insufficient.  The plaintiffs ultimately prevailed on their appeal.

In the case, the decedent had experienced chest pains and called 911.  The defendants were dispatched to the decedent’s home and transported him to the hospital by ambulance.  In the ambulance, the defendants checked the decedent’s initial vital signs and concluded that he was in stable condition.  The defendants alerted hospital staff that the reason for the decedent’s visit was heartburn.  As the decedent was waiting in the emergency room with the defendants, he continued to complain of chest pains and soon became unconscious.  He was immediately treated by hospital staff but, despite life-saving efforts, passed away.  It was later revealed that he had died of a heart attack.

The surviving family members brought suit against the paramedics and the city, alleging gross negligence due to their emergency response.  On appeal, the plaintiffs contended that the trial court erred by entering judgment for the defendants on the basis of insufficient evidence of gross negligence.  The question for the appeals court, therefore, was whether or not the evidence at trial permitted only one inference, which was that the defendants were not grossly negligent.

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Personal injury cases arising out of asbestos exposure have a long history in Maryland, and may involve specific legislation enacted to protect the victims.  In a September 19, 2018 case, the family members of the decedent filed a Maryland wrongful death suit against two companies, alleging that the decedent contracted mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos.  The circuit court granted the defendant’s request for summary judgment based on the statute of repose, and the plaintiffs filed an appeal.

The decedent had installed and serviced boilers manufactured by the defendants.  The plaintiffs alleged that the decedent was exposed to the asbestos-containing rope, gaskets, cement, and putty supplied with the boilers.  The defendants, however, testified that they did not manufacture any of the parts that were packaged with the boilers, and moved for summary judgment.  In their response to the defendants’ motion, the plaintiffs failed to address the argument regarding the statute of repose.  When the motion was granted, the plaintiffs asked the court to reconsider and provided additional evidence.  The court denied the motion, and the plaintiffs appealed.

Maryland’s statute of repose grants immunity for all persons who might otherwise be held liable for a defect in an improvement to real property that occurred more than twenty years from the date of the improvement.  There are, however, exclusions where the statute of repose does not apply to bar a cause of action.  The statute does not apply to personal injury and wrongful death actions against a manufacturer or supplier, where the injury or death results from exposure to asbestos dust or fibers emitted prior to or during installation of an asbestos-containing product to an improvement to real property.  In addition, it does not apply to claims for personal injury and wrongful death caused by asbestos or an asbestos-containing product, where the defendant is a manufacturer of a product that contains asbestos.

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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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