The Rise of Split Claims in Wrongful Death/Survival Cases

by Pessin Katz Law, P.A.
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Pessin Katz Law, P.A.

Recently, in Spangler v. McQuitty, 449 Md. 33 (2016), the Maryland Court of Appeals examined the interplay between an injured person’s injury claim/survival action and the claims of beneficiaries under Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act. While the Court acknowledged that a wrongful death action was derivative of the injured person’s action, the Court held that Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act is a separate and distinct action for the injured person’s beneficiaries.

The McQuitty Court indicated that Maryland’s jurisprudence on the issue was in line with the minority of jurisdictions that hold that neither a judgment in favor of the decedent, nor a release of liability prior to a decedent’s death, would bar a subsequent wrongful death action.   The McQuitty Court also discussed that some defenses that bar a decedent’s personal injury claim would, in turn, bar a wrongful death action by a decedent’s beneficiaries, including: i) statute of limitations; ii) contributory negligence; iii) assumption of risk; iv) parental immunity; and v) a lack of privity of contract between a decedent and a manufacturer.  The Court discussed that the doctrine of res judicata was not an automatic bar to a subsequent action, and the doctrine may or may not be implicated depending on the circumstances of the initially filed matter.

The impact of Spangler v. McQuitty remains to be seen.  The case holding was widely discussed by the plaintiff’s bar and may result in a sequencing of claims by plaintiffs in death cases.  It may result in more claims being filed by means of a survival action, then a second action filed by the wrongful death claimants.  This could have the effect of increasing damages if separate juries are asked to assess damages related to a person’s injury and death.  Those separate cases would likely involve the same witnesses and evidence.  The holding of McQuitty does not appear to promote judicial economy and may be revisited by the Court of Appeals or the Maryland General Assembly in the future.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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