Asserting Claims under Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute

The Court of Appeals recently ruled in University of Maryland Medical Systems Corp v. Muti, a case involving the appropriate interpretation of the Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute found in Sections 3-901 to 3-904 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article of the Maryland Code. A copy of the case can be found here.

The Plaintiffs were the widow and adult children of the decedent. The appeal arose because the Plaintiffs failed to disclose in their Complaint the existence of a stepson whom the decedent had adopted during a prior marriage. Plaintiffs asserted that they had not had any contact with the adoptive son for over twelve years and had no idea if and/or where he was living.

The hospital argued that a wrongful death claim requires that there may only be one action by all possible beneficiaries, and that action must be brought within three years. As a result, the failure to identify the adopted son was a failure by Plaintiffs to join a necessary party and the expiration of the three year statute of limitations precluded the plaintiffs from amending their claim.

The circuit court dismissed the complaint because of the failure to name the adoptive son as what is called a “use plaintiff.” The trial court noted that Plaintiffs had not filed an affidavit affirming that they were unable to locate the adoptive son, and even if they were unable to locate him, The circuit court decided that Plaintiffs had a duty to put “everyone” on notice of his possible existence. The Plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Special Appeals which found that the circuit court abused its discretion when it denied Plaintiffs leave to amend without considering prejudice to the adoptive son, and the case was remanded back to the circuit court.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals, University of Maryland argued that Plaintiffs, who timely sued in this case, are barred from maintaining their claim because of the potential existence of another beneficiary, leaving the hospital theoretically exposed to more than one wrongful death action. The Court of Appeals declined to agree that the statute requires a wrongful death action to be a unitary action by all actual or potential beneficiaries. Further, while acknowledging that Plaintiffs should have identified the adoptive son since lack of knowledge of his location did not prevent compliance with the law, the Court found no basis for inferring that the omission was for the purpose of hiding the litigation from him or in the hope that Plaintiffs would increase their recovery.

Ultimately, under the totality of the circumstances, Maryland’s highest court held that the circuit court abused its discretion in dismissing the Plaintiffs’ wrongful death claims as a sanction for the omission and remand the case back to the circuit court.

As an experienced Baltimore, Maryland medical malpractice lawyer, I have handled hundreds of wrongful death cases on behalf of parents, spouses and children of the deceased. It is critical to join all of the potential claimants or the case can be adversely affected. To see some of the cases I have handled, click here.

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