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The Wrongful Death Statute in Maryland: A Summary of Mummert and Spangler

August 5, 2020

The recent decisions by the Maryland Court of Appeals in Mummert v. Alizadeh (2013) and Spangler v. McQuitty (2015) establish clarification of the statute of limitations under Maryland’s Wrongful Death statute, Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-904.

In Mummert, the decedent did not bring any medical negligence claims during her lifetime. At the time of her death, the statute of limitations for any medical negligence claims by the decedent had run.  However, the beneficiaries brought a timely wrongful death action within three years after her death.  The primary issue the court faced was whether the beneficiaries’ right to file a wrongful death lawsuit was contingent upon the decedent’s ability to have brought a timely medical negligence claim at the time of her death.  The legal theory of the defendant was that, based on the language of the statute, a wrongful death claim requires the existence of a “wrongful act,” and because the decedent failed to bring a medical negligence claim, there was no actionable “wrongful act” on which to base the wrongful death claim.  The court summarized the defendant’s position as follows:

    The gist of the argument made by [the defendant] is that the legislative intent behind the inclusion in the wrongful death statute of the language requiring that a ‘wrongful act’ be one ‘which would have entitled the injured party to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued,’ was to condition the existence of a wrongful act on the decedent having a viable cause of action at the time of her death.

The beneficiaries argued that the wrongful death statute creates a new cause of action, that the three-year timeliness provision of § 3-904(g)(1) is the only one applicable to wrongful death actions, and that the definition of a “wrongful act” in § 3-901(e) is not relevant in analyzing the timeliness of a wrongful death suit.  The court accepted these arguments.

The court found the “wrongful act” language ambiguous, and undertook an analysis of the history of the wrongful death statute, as well as a statutory construction analysis based on principles laid out in Lockshin v. Semsker. Based on the “general purpose” of the statute, the court determined that the Legislature intended the wrongful death statute to be a new cause of action that served to benefit the families of the decedents, completely independent from the decedent’s own negligence claims.  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.  

This decision in Mummert was rendered while Spangler v. McQuitty was pending before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and it heavily influenced the Court’s ruling.  In McQuitty, the defendant had been found liable for medical negligence in a personal injury case brought by the decedent before his death.  The beneficiaries, decedent’s parents, brought a timely wrongful death action against that same defendant, which the circuit court had dismissed, arguing that it was precluded by the previous judgment in decedent’s favor.  The Court of Special Appeals reversed and remanded the circuit court opinion, citing Mummert heavily in determining that beneficiaries in wrongful death actions were not barred by the decedent’s personal injury action.  The court reasoned that decedent’s “affirmative and purposeful conduct” in pursuing a judgment was not a release or settlement and any recovery by the beneficiaries would not constitute a double recovery.

The argument by the Petitioners’ in Spangler centered, like the defendant’s in Mummert, on the definition of a “wrongful act” specifically in regard to the phrase, “if death had not ensued.”  See Md. Code Ann. § 3-901(e).  The court referred to Mummert’s extensive analysis of the wrongful death statute’s legislative history and statutory purpose, while acknowledging that Maryland adheres to the minority view that the wrongful death statute creates a new and independent cause of action, separate from any prior personal injury actions by the decedent.  The Spangler court also articulated precisely why any previous negligence claim by the decedent did not bar a wrongful death claim under res judicata doctrine, an element that the Mummert court did not address.  

First, Mummert clearly established that the wrongful death claim is a new and independent cause of action; thus, “although [decedent’s] prior personal injury judgment would preclude him from bringing a second action based on the same underlying conduct, under principles of res judicata, this reasoning is not applicable to a subsequent wrongful death action by Respondents.”  Spangler, Md. Lexis 444 at 35-36 (emphasis in original).  Second, the court discussed how, although res judicata principles may appear to preclude a wrongful death claim on its face, the doctrine actually works to support the wrongful death claim by demonstrating the very existence of a viable claim at the outset.  In Spangler, it was undisputed that the Beneficiaries had a viable claim because the decedent had a viable claim.  As the court stated, “the test of whether the [wrongful death] action is barred depends only upon whether the decedent had a viable claim at the outset of the litigation.”  Id. at 45.

In addition to having a viable claim at the outset, the court stated that the only other conditions precedent to bringing a wrongful death action are, “1) that death ensued as a result of a wrongful act by a tortfeasor[s]. . . 2) that the beneficiaries have standing to sue. . . and 3) that the action is within the statutory limitations period.”  Id. at 46.  Thus, the Spangler court further articulated the elements of the wrongful death statute, and clarified the precise elements that must be present for a party to have a viable claim.