Maryland Wrongful Death Statute Survives Challenge and Lives On

Posted on by Ann Ware in Litigation.

In Susan Mummert, et al. v. Massoud B. Alizadeh, et al., 435 Md. 207, 77 A.3d 1049 (2013), Maryland’s highest Court held that a wrongful death beneficiary’s right to file a lawsuit is not contingent upon the decedent’s ability to bring a timely negligence claim on the date of her death. The question on appeal revolved around key language in Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute, including the requirement that a “wrongful act” be one “which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued.”

The facts giving rise to the wrongful death action stemmed from medical treatment provided by Dr. Alizadeh to Ms. Varner from 1997 through 2004. During this period of time, Ms. Varner presented to Dr. Alizadeh with continuing complaints of significant weight loss and alternating conditions of diarrhea and constipation. Despite these symptoms, Dr. Alizadeh did not order or perform a prescreening colonoscopy, annual digital rectal exam, or annual hemoccult testing. Eventually, on May 25, 2004, Dr. Alizadeh conducted a digital rectal exam and hemoccult test and referred Ms. Varner for a colonoscopy which revealed a large tumor in her colon. She was immediately diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer with liver metastasis. Ms. Varner died on March 14, 2008. Ms. Varner’s family members filed a wrongful death claim on May 12, 2010.

In the lower court, Dr. Alizadeh filed a motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of the wrongful death claim. The motion was granted. The family of the decedent appealed. On appeal, Dr. Alizadeh argued that the Circuit Court was correct in granting his motion to dismiss the wrongful death action because Ms. Varner herself could not have brought a timely claim for medical negligence at the time of her death because the three year statute of limitations had expired. The family of the decedent conversely argued that the filing of the wrongful death claim was not contingent on the statute of limitations for bringing tort claims against the healthcare provider in instances of alleged medical negligence.

In analyzing the issues presented, the Court of Appeals began by discussing pertinent principles of statutory construction. It also noted that Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute was created legislatively in derogation of common law and has remained essentially unchanged since its inception in 1852. The Wrongful Death Statute has a time limitation to bring suit, which is three (3) years after the death of the injured person. In reaching its decision, the Court relied on the fact that the legislature purposefully created the Wrongful Death Statute to be a new and independent cause of action. This legislative purpose signified for the Court that the legislature did not intend for a statute of limitations defense against the decedent’s claim to bar a subsequent wrongful death claim. The Court concluded that the three year statute of limitations contained in the wrongful death statute, not the statute of limitations for bringing tort claims against the health care provider, applies. As such, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim does not start to run until the decedent’s death.