Court: Wrongful Death Lawsuits Are Not Dependent On the Filing Of A Medical Malpractice Claim

By Alan J. Belsky
on November 12, 2013 | Comments (0)

Thumbnail image for Caduceus.jpgMaryland's top court has held that wrongful death claims are not dependent on the filing of a negligence lawsuit and that the statute of limitations for bringing claims against healthcare providers in medical malpractice cases does not apply to a claim for wrongful death. The court's rulings stem from a lawsuit brought by the family of a woman who died from cancer several years after a doctor's apparent failure to diagnose her cancer. The woman had not filed a medical malpractice claim before her death.

Massoud B. Alizadeh argued that Margaret Varner's husband and children could not sue him because Margaret Varner had not filed a medical malpractice lawsuit at the time of her death, and that, had she done so, her lawsuit would have been barred as being too late. If Mrs. Varner couldn't sue at the time of the death, the doctor said, then the family couldn't take him to court with their own wrongful death claims. However, Maryland's Court of Appeals disagreed.

"We hold that the Legislature did not intend to define 'wrongful act' so as to render a wrongful death claim contingent on the decedent's ability to file timely a tort claim prior to death. In response to an additional argument raised here, we hold that the statute of limitations for bringing tort claims against health care providers in instances of alleged medical negligence does not apply to a claim for wrongful death," the state's top court said.

Maryland's wrongful death statute was enacted to allow those who are dependent on the dead person to recover damages for losses resulting from the death. The law is aimed at compensating the families of persons killed by a wrongful act.

Varner became Dr. Alizadeh's patient in 1997. Although Mrs. Varner lost a lot of weight and experienced diarrhea and constipation, Dr. Alizadeh did not order or perform a screening colonoscopy, annual digital rectum exam or annual hemoccult testing. When a digital rectal exam and hemoccult testing were finally performed in 2004, Dr. Alizadeh referred Mrs. Varner to a general surgeon, who performed a colonoscopy and other tests and determined that Mrs. Varner had a large tumor in her colon. Mrs. Varner was diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer that had spread to the liver and later to her spine. She died in March 2008.

Mrs. Varner's husband and three children filed survival - that was later waived - and wrongful death claims in March 2011 with the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office of Maryland, alleging that Dr. Alizadeh was negligent and careless and failed to timely conduct the appropriate tests and to diagnose timely Mrs. Varner's cancer. The parties waived arbitration and the case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Washington County.

Dr. Alizadeh then filed a motion to dismiss with the trial court, arguing that the claims could not go forward because Mrs. Varner had not brought a lawsuit against Dr. Alizadeh nor could she have at the time of her death as it would have been barred by the statute of limitations.

The statute for limitations in medical malpractice cases is five years from the time the injury was committed or three years after the date the injury was discovered - whichever is earlier. The statute of limitations is a way to remove stale claims from the legal system.

The trial court granted the motion. Varner's family then asked the Court of Special Appeals to review the decision; but, in an action that happens only a few times a year, the Court of Appeals decided instead to take the case.

The family urged the appeals court to reverse the trial court and to decide that, based on the plain language of the wrongful death statute, the ability to bring a wrongful death claim is not dependent upon the dead person's ability to bring a negligence claim at the time of death.

The doctor made several arguments before the court. Dr. Alizadeh contended that a wrongful death claim is not a separate action from the underlying medical negligence claim. Alizadeh said that, because wrongful death and negligence are connected, the court had to conclude that, if the statute of limitations would have barred Mrs. Varner's claim before she died, then a wrongful death claim must also be thrown out of court. He also said that the family failed to read the language of the wrongful death statute's time provision in the context of the entire statute.

The doctor also relied heavily on the court's treatment of the defense of release. The release of a negligence claim by the dead person can bar surviving family members from later bringing a wrongful death action.

Finally, Dr. Alizadeh also argued that to allow wrongful death claims based on medical malpractice to be filed years after the alleged injury to the decedent would be problematic for the practical defense of such claims by health care providers because they are not required to keep their records for indefinite periods of time.

In reversing the trial court, the state's top court observed that the lower court lacked clear guidance from the court on the meaning of key language in Maryland's wrongful death statute. In observing that the statute was ambiguous, the court noted that both parties' claims that the plain language of the statute supported their arguments highlighted the ambiguity in the statute's language.

The court noted that the legislature's purpose in enacting the wrongful death statute was to create a new and independent cause of action. "It is not wholly incorrect to state that a wrongful death claim is derivative of the decedent's claim in some sense. The two actions stem from the same underlying conduct, which must have resulted in the decedent having a viable claim when she was injured. That connection, however, does not compel the conclusion that all defenses applicable to the decadent's claim prior to her death and would preclude necessarily maintenance of a wrongful death claim after the decedent's death. That the Legislature's purpose was to create a new and independent cause of action when it passed the wrongful death statute suggests that it did not intend for a statute of limitations defense against the decedent's claim to bar consequently a subsequent wrongful death claim," the court said.

The court rejected the doctor's arguments about release and medical records, explaining that, while a release of a negligence claim by the decedent can bar surviving family members from bringing a wrongful death action, a release is distinguishable from the expiration of the statute of limitations because a decedent who executes a release has acted purposefully to extinguish the underlying claim. In addition, whether a release bars a wrongful death claim depends in part on the sweep of the language of the particular release.

As to medical records, the court said that a lack of medical records, due to the passage of time, prejudices both parties involved in the lawsuit.

"Accordingly, we hold that a wrongful death claimant's right to sue is not contingent on the decedent's ability to file a timely negligence claim prior to her death," the court said in reversing the trial court and observing that the family had filed their lawsuit within the three-year limitation imposed by Maryland law.

Baltimore, Maryland-based Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been fighting for the victims of medical malpractice and negligence for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.

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