United States: What Can A Company Expect After Losing A Major Personal Injury Case At Trial? Getting Sued Again For The Same Injury, To The Same Person

Last Updated: December 28 2016
Article by Glenn A. Gordon

For a company doing business in Maryland, navigating the landscape of survival and wrongful death claims can be succinctly summed up by the "Relationship Status" often seen on the profiles of Facebook users: "It's Complicated." An opinion issued by the Court of Appeals of Maryland earlier this year in Spangler v. McQuitty, 449 Md. 33, 141 A.3d 156 (2016) (referred to as "McQuitty III" because the case had twice been before the Court of Appeals on other issues) further complicates matters.

In McQuitty III, which arose from a medical malpractice action, the Court of Appeals held that 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 his or her beneficiaries under the same underlying facts. McQuitty III involved a claim for lack of informed consent filed by a husband and wife on behalf of their minor son, Dylan, for severe injuries he sustained when Mrs. McQuitty suffered a complete placental abruption during his birth. The case went to trial only against Dr. Spangler, who was the attending obstetrician, and his practice (his partner and the hospital where the procedure occurred had settled). The jury ultimately awarded damages in favor of the plaintiffs.  

Dylan passed away following the jury verdict, and his parents subsequently filed a wrongful death action against Dr. Spangler and his practice. Their wrongful death claim was based upon the same underlying facts in the personal injury action regarding Dr. Spangler's alleged failure to obtain informed consent. Dr. Spangler and his practice filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the wrongful death claim was barred by the principle of res judicata. The Circuit Court granted the motion based on its conclusion that Dylan had no right to bring a claim against them at the time of his death due to the judgment he previously obtained. 

The Court of Special Appeals reversed the Circuit Court's ruling, and the Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed that decision. In doing so, the Court of Appeals relied heavily on its 2013 opinion in the case of Mummert v. Alizadeh, 435 Md. 207, 77 A.3d 1049 (2013). In Mummert, the Court of Appeals had held that a wrongful death claim, under Maryland's version of the Lord Campbell's Act, is separate and independent from a decedent's personal injury claim in that the damages are for the losses of the decedent's beneficiaries. Therefore, a wrongful death claim brought by a decedent's beneficiaries was not barred where the decedent failed to bring a personal injury claim within the applicable statute of limitations prior to her death.  

The Mummert Court distinguished the statute of limitations defense from certain other defenses to a personal injury claim that could bar a subsequent wrongful death claim, such as contributory negligence and assumption of the risk, on the ground that the decedent had no viable personal injury claim from the outset where those defenses applied. In McQuitty III, the Court applied the same reasoning in holding that a judgment obtained by the decedent during his or her lifetime is not a bar to a wrongful death claim by his or her beneficiaries. As such, the McQuitty III Court has further expanded the reach of the wrongful death statute. Now, a tortfeasor can be forced to twice litigate the same set of underlying facts (albeit under different damages theories): once while an injured claimant is alive, and again after his or her death.

The McQuitty III Court was not persuaded by policy arguments raised by Dr. Spangler and his practice concerning the influx of litigation that its decision could cause, or the risk of double recovery where, for example, the injured party obtained damages for future lost wages and his or her beneficiaries seek damages for loss of financial support as part of their wrongful death suit (which, according to the Court, can be sorted out by the trial judge).  

The McQuitty III Court rehashed one other pertinent point from the Mummert opinion: that "whether a release by the decedent bars a wrongful death claim by [the decedent's] beneficiaries depends in part on the sweep of the language of the particular release."  

So what does all of this mean for your company? First, when handling a catastrophic personal injury case filed by a living plaintiff, it is prudent to plan for the economic and evidentiary issues that will arise if the plaintiff passes away after the suit is resolved. Second, releases for personal injury cases should explicitly disclaim future wrongful death actions by the settling party's beneficiaries.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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