The Claims of Minors in Wrongful Death Claims Must be Brought Within Three Years of the Decedent’s Death

Posted on by Jennifer Buell in Litigation.

Wrongful death claims are a creature of statute.  There is no common law claim for wrongful death.  Maryland’s Wrongful Death Act, codified in Md. Cts. and Jud. Proc., Title 3, Subtitle 9 (the “Act”), identifies those individuals who are beneficiaries under the Act, which include the children of the deceased individual.  Often, the children who are entitled to assert the claim are minors.  Ordinarily, a cause of action for wrongful death must be brought within three years from the decedent’s demise.  Maryland law, however, has long stated that limitations for a minor’s claim do not start running until the minor has reached the age of majority.  Specifically, Md. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-201 provides that “a cause of action subject to a limitation under Subtitle 1 of this title or Title 3, Subtitle 9 of this article accrues in favor of a minor…within the lesser of three years or the applicable period of limitations after the date the disability is removed.”  A claim by or on  behalf of a person who is a minor when the claim accrues must ordinarily be filed no later than the day before he or she turns 21 years of age.  How does one, however, reconcile §3-904 (f) of the Act, which permits the filing of only one action for the wrongful death of an individual, with the extension of the limitations period for aggrieved minors?

The Maryland Court of Appeals addressed this incongruity in Waddell v. Kirkpatrick, 331 Md. 52, 626 A.2d 353 (1993), where it held that “[s]ince the [Act] permits but one action to be brought against the same defendant for the death of the injured person and those damages are to be apportioned among the beneficiaries of that person, it follows that the Legislature intended that all such beneficiaries’ claims be brought together within the period prescribed for bringing the action.” Waddell v. Kirkpatrick, 331 Md. 52, 626 A.2d 353 (1993).  The Court explained that “the time period prescribed in section 3-904(g) has been construed by this Court to be a condition precedent to maintaining the action, rather than a statute of limitation.” Waddell v. Kirkpatrick, 331 Md. 52, 626 A.2d 353 (1993). A condition precedent is a limitation period within which the action must be brought and is set forth by the statute that creates said cause of action. “The time within which the suit must be brought operates as a limitation of the liability itself as created, and not of the remedy alone. It is a condition attached to the right to sue at all….Time has been made of the essence of the right and the right is lost if the time is disregarded.” Id. citing State v. Parks, 148 Md. 477, 129 A. 793 (1925).  A statute of limitations on the other hand only addresses the time to pursue the remedy, not the right to bring the action.  In other words, failure to satisfy a condition precedent voids the claim, regardless of the applicable limitations period.

Md. Cts & Jud Proc. § 3-904 requires that only one wrongful death action may be filed against the same defendant as to an individual’s death.  If this action is not filed within three years from the individual’s death, the right to file it will be lost. Being a minor at the time of the individual’s death will not toll the time period for filing a wrongful death action.