In its opinion filed on July 12, 2016, the Court of Appeals of Maryland (“Appellate Court”), Maryland’s highest appellate court, held that Maryland’s wrongful death statute creates a new and independent cause of action for a decedent’s beneficiaries, and thus, a judgment on the merits in a decedent’s personal injury action during his or her lifetime does not bar a subsequent wrongful death action by the beneficiaries.
The Appellate Court further held that pursuant to the Maryland Uniform Contribution Among Tort-Feasors Act, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-1404, a release by the injured person of one joint tort-feasor, whether before or after judgment, does not discharge the other tort-feasors unless the release so provides. Thus, where the language of a release unambiguously reveals an intent to release only one joint tort-feasor, the release does not preclude a subsequent wrongful death action against other tort-feasors that were not parties to the release.
The Underlying Facts
The plaintiffs, on behalf of their minor child, Dylan, successfully sued the wife’s obstetrician and primary care physician for failing to obtain her informed consent for treatment. As a result, the wife suffered complete placental abruption, causing severe injuries to Dylan during his birth in May 1995, and his subsequent cerebral palsy.
The original Maryland medical malpractice complaint included as co-defendants the hospital where the birth took place and the defendant OB’s partner, both of whom moved for summary judgment on liability and damages, which was subsequently granted by the trial court. Nonetheless, the OB’s partner settled the Maryland medical malpractice claims against him on the same day that his motion for summary judgment was granted, and the hospital settled the medical malpractice claims against it prior to trial, despite summary judgment having been granted in its favor. The two settlements were entered on the record and the case proceeded on the informed consent claim against the remaining defendants (the OB and the primary care physician).
Prior to trial, the remaining defendants moved for summary judgment, which was denied. The Maryland medical malpractice jury subsequently returned a verdict in favor of Dylan and awarded $13,078,515 in damages, including $8,442,515 in future medical expenses. The defendants filed post-trial motions: a Motion for Remittitur and a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (“JNOV”) that raised the same argument addressed in their motion for summary judgment (i.e., that the defendant OB did not have a duty to obtain the informed consent of the plaintiff regarding a placental abruption because he did not conduct or propose an affirmative invasion of her physical integrity). The Motion for Remittitur was not ruled upon by the trial court because the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for JNOV.
The plaintiffs appealed to Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, which affirmed the trial court granting the defendants’ motion for JNOV. The subsequent appeal to the Appellate Court resulted in the Appellate Court reversing the granting of the JNOV but remanding the Maryland medical malpractice case to the trial court with instructions that the trial court consider the defendants’ unresolved Motion for Remittitur.
On September 26, 2009, prior to the trial court ruling on the defendants’ Motion for Remittitur, Dylan died and his parents were named as personal representatives of his Estate. Thereafter, the defendants filed various post-trial motions, seeking a new trial or a reduction in the award for future medical expenses, alleging, inter alia, that Dylan’s death was a “significant event” that affected the equities of the case.
The trial court denied the defendants’ motion to revise the judgment, but granted in part and denied in part their Motion for Remittitur. As a result, the trial court reduced the Maryland medical malpractice jury’s award, pursuant to Maryland’s statutory cap on non-economic damages in Maryland medical malpractice cases in effect at the time of the injury (i.e., $500,000), under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11–108(b)(2)(i), and also reduced the judgment by fifty percent to reflect the defendant OB’s pro rata share of liability, as a result of the joint tort-feasor release from the plaintiffs, in compliance with the Uniform Contribution Among Tort-Feasors Act, under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–1404.
The trial court ultimately reduced the judgment to $5,039,257.50, plus post-judgment interest calculated from the date of the entry of judgment (September 27, 2006) plus costs. The plaintiffs appealed and the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Subsequently, on March 23, 2012, the defendants satisfied the judgment.
On May 17, 2012 (after Dylan’s death), the plaintiffs filed a Maryland wrongful death action against the same defendants, pursuant to Maryland’s wrongful death statute, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901 et seq., to recover damages based upon the same underlying facts as in the Maryland medical malpractice lawsuit regarding the defendant OB’s failure to obtain informed consent.
On August 1, 2012, the defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, which was granted by the trial court after a hearing on December 6, 2012: the trial court concluded that the plaintiffs’ Maryland wrongful death claim was precluded by the judgment in Dylan’s favor because Dylan no longer had a right to bring another claim against the defendants at the time of his death. Plaintiffs thereafter filed an appeal.
The Appellate Court stated that the determinative issue in the present appeal is whether, under the definition of “wrongful act” as set forth in Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e), a wrongful death action is derivative, or independent of, a decedent’s prior personal injury claim, where the decedent obtained a judgment based on the same underlying facts.
Maryland’s wrongful death statute defines “wrongful act” as “an act, neglect, or default including a felonious act which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued.” Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e).
The Appellate Court held that the Maryland wrongful death statute provides a new and independent cause of action, which does not preclude a subsequent action brought by a decedent’s beneficiaries, although the decedent obtained a personal injury judgment based essentially on the same underlying facts during his or her lifetime. The Appellate Court stated that interpreting a wrongful death action under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e) as derivative of a decedent’s personal injury claim would lead to a result that is inconsistent with the purpose of the statute: the purpose of the wrongful death statute is to allow the decedent’s beneficiaries or relatives to recover damages for loss of support or other benefits that would have been provided, had the decedent not died as a result of another’s negligence.
The Appellate Court further stated that the Maryland General Assembly did not intend to bar a wrongful death action simply because a decedent pursued a personal injury action during his or her lifetime, since that interpretation would contravene the independent nature and purpose of a wrongful death claim.
The Appellate Court also held that a res judicata defense is not relevant to a wrongful death action because the test of whether the action is barred depends only upon whether the decedent had a viable claim at the outset of the litigation – res judicata is distinguishable from other defenses that bar a subsequent wrongful death action because a res judicata defense demonstrates the existence of a viable claim at the outset.
The Appellate Court stated that in addition to having a viable claim at the outset, the only conditions precedent to bringing a Maryland wrongful death action include: 1) that death ensued as a result of a wrongful act by a tort-feasor(s) [Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e), § 3-902(a)]; 2) that the beneficiaries have standing to sue [Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-904(a)(1)-(b)]; and 3) that the action is within the statutory limitations period [Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-904(g)].
Source Spangler v. McQuitty, No. 69, September Term, 2015.
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