Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

Many Maryland residents go to and from work every day without ever experiencing any major accidents. Sometimes, however, accidents occur on the job, and employees will find themselves injured because of something that happened while they were working. These accidents can take many forms. For example, mailmen might get bitten by a dog while delivering mail, or they might trip while walking up to someone’s door to drop off a package. Grocery store workers might slip on a wet floor, or mechanics might get injured by faulty machinery. In many of these circumstances, the employee would be eligible to claim worker’s compensation and recover financially for their losses against their employer. In some cases, however, a worker may also be able to bring a third-party work injury claim to recover for the damages they have suffered.

Third-party work injury claims are filed by an employee injured on the job against a negligent party other than their employer—a third party. This type of claim is available when the injury was caused in full or in part by a party other than the employer. For example, take a tragic accident from earlier this month. According to a local news report, the accident occurred around 7:30 one night at a Home Depot. A delivery driver (who did not work for Home Depot) was delivering construction materials when a load of drywall fell on him at the store, striking and ultimately killing him. Not much more is known about this incident right now, but it was clearly an unexpected tragedy.

This is an example of a situation where an employee—or in this case, an employee’s family, since the victim was killed—may be able to file a third-party claim. In this case, rather than suing the victim’s employer, the plaintiffs would potentially file suit against Home Depot. To be successful in this claim, the plaintiffs would have to prove that Home Depot, or one of its employees, somehow caused the accident. Perhaps they negligently secured the drywall high up somewhere, creating a risk that it would fall on someone below, for example. If the plaintiffs can successfully prove that Home Depot was responsible for the accident, they can recover financially against them to try and make them whole after the damage suffered. Damages awarded to plaintiffs in cases such as these commonly include medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages, and even funeral and burial costs.

The tragic thing about Maryland personal injury accidents is that they can happen instantaneously, in the blink of an eye, without any forewarning. While sometimes they may occur in more expected places—such as car accidents occurring while driving on the highway—there are sometimes where Maryland residents are injured, through no fault of their own, out of nowhere. These accidents can be incredibly frustrating for the victim and their families, as they are suddenly injured, have to pay medical bills, might miss work, and may deal with long-lasting physical ailments as well as mental and psychological pain.

For example, take a recent shocking Maryland accident reported by the Baltimore Sun. According to the news article, a car crashed through a front window area of the Parkville Crabs restaurant in Baltimore County one afternoon. It is believed that the driver accidentally hit the gas pedal in the parking lot, causing them to drive through the front of the restaurant unexpectedly. A 35-year-old woman inside was killed after being hit by debris from the crash. Investigators are still looking into the accident and working on an accident reconstruction to figure out exactly what happened, but believe that it was not intentional. Instead, it is thought to be just a tragic and unfortunate mistake.

This fatal accident is just one example of something that can happen unexpectedly and change a life in an instant. While nothing can undo the damage that these accidents cause, and there is no way to fully prevent each and every one from happening in the first place, Maryland state law does at least allow victims one course to recovery. Those injured can file what is called a personal injury lawsuit against the negligent individual or company who caused the accident.

The state-created danger theory imposes liability on a governmental entity for acts committed by a private actor. It generally applies in situations where the state increases the risk of harm to an individual through the state’s affirmative acts. Although courts have considered the doctrine in Maryland accident cases, Maryland had not adopted the state-created danger theory as a basis for recovery for violations under the state’s constitution. In general, under Maryland law, a private party does not have a duty to control a third party’s conduct to prevent harm to another person. However, a private party may have a duty when there is a special relationship between the private party and the third party or between the private party and the injured person. Whether a special relationship exists is determined on a case-by-case basis.

A federal appeals court recently considered the doctrine in a case involving three family members who died in a fire after the fire department failed to go look for them. According to the court’s opinion, the woman was in her apartment with her son and her stepfather and called 911 when they saw their apartment building was on fire. An operator from the fire department told her to stay inside the apartment and that help was on the way. The firefighters drove to the wrong location, and when they did arrive at the scene, they were never told that the family was inside, and no one searched for them. The three family members remained inside and died from smoke inhalation. No one looked for them until days later, when the firefighters found their bodies inside the apartment.

The estates of three family members sued the city and two fire department employees. The estates claimed that the state-created danger doctrine applied because the dispatcher told them to close themselves in their room, assured them that firefighters were on their way, and then failed to communicate the family’s presence or location to the firefighters. The court explained that the doctrine requires that there be, 1.) a foreseeable and fairly direct harm, 2.) an action that shocks the conscience, 3.) a relationship with the state that makes the plaintiff a foreseeable victim, and 4.) an affirmative use of state authority that created a danger or made others more vulnerable. The court held that the doctrine was inapplicable because there was it was not an affirmative act and because the conduct did not “shock the conscience.” It held that the dispatcher did not act affirmatively because the dispatcher only failed to communicate the family’s location to the firefighters, and the operator’s failure to communicate the family’s location was not sufficient to “shock the conscience,” in part, because it was not an intentional act.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court considered whether a spouse could be added to a wrongful death claim after the statute of limitations had expired. In that case, a man was transported to a hospital via ambulance after he began bleeding from the area where he was receiving dialysis treatment. He died three days later. The man’s wife initially did not want to participate in the lawsuit and the man’s children sued several medical providers for wrongful death. The defendants argued that the case should be dismissed because the spouse was not a plaintiff in the suit. Under the state’s wrongful death statute, children can only bring a wrongful death claim if the deceased person does not have a surviving spouse. After the statute of limitations had passed, the plaintiffs attempted to add the wife to the claim. The trial court dismissed the suit against certain defendants because the wife had not filed the claim, but allowed it to continue against the providers.

The appeals court ruled that the court should have allowed the wife to be added. The court held that in this case, the amendment adding the spouse to the lawsuit after the expiration of the statute of limitation related back to the original complaint because it arose out of the same occurrence and the defendant would not be prejudiced. The court stated that a delay in filing was not enough to deny the amendment of the spouse. Therefore, the trial court should have added the wife to the case, and the court reinstated the case.

Possible Plaintiffs Under Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute

Maryland personal injury lawsuits, although often complicated, boil down to four simple elements. In order to be successful, the plaintiff must prove (1) the defendant owed them a duty; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries; and (4) the plaintiff suffered real damages as a result. In some cases, the first two of these elements can be established just by the existence of a statute and the defendant’s violation of that statute. When this happens, the claim is considered negligence per se, and the plaintiff then only really has to establish two of the elements, instead of four.

A state appellate court recently considered a negligence per se claim in a wrongful death suit. According to the court’s written opinion, the deceased was driving his four-wheeler on another’s property, and the owner had given him permission to be there. While driving, one of the vehicle’s wheels fell into a well that was hidden from view by vegetation. This caused the vehicle to turn over, and the driver fell into the well and tragically died.

The deceased’s wife, the plaintiff in this case, brought a negligence action against a forestry service who had done work on the property, alleging that they were negligent in failing to report the open well to the property owner. The plaintiff pointed to a state statute that required anyone aware of “an open abandoned well or hole” located on “public or private property” to the governing authority. According to the plaintiff, this statute created a duty, and the defendant’s failure to report the well-constituted a breach of that duty, satisfying two of the required elements in a negligence suit.

A Maryland Appellate Court recently issued a written opinion discussing the heightened standard for proving gross negligence in a Maryland wrongful death lawsuit. According to the court’s opinion, in early March of 2011, the victim woke up around one in the morning with chest pains. The victim’s wife called 9-1-1, reporting the chest pain and her husband’s difficulty breathing and speaking. The defendants, first responders, arrived on the scene shortly after, asked the victim about his symptoms, and did a visual assessment, concluding that he should be taken to the ambulance for further assessment. The victim walked to the ambulance himself without the aid of a stretcher. Once inside the ambulance, the defendants checked his vitals, which all appeared normal. The defendants then determined they would take him to the nearest hospital.

Approximately seven minutes after first arriving on the victim’s street, the defendants took him to the hospital. According to the defendants, the victim was comfortable and talkative during the three-minute drive. At the hospital, while waiting in the emergency room, the victim’s condition seemed to worsen, and the victim held his chest and complained about the pain for five to ten minutes until he ultimately became unconscious. At this point, he was taken immediately to receive treatment, and the defendants left the hospital and went back to work. The victim ultimately could not be resuscitated and died of a heart attack.

Maryland law allows surviving family members to seek compensation for a tragedy, and the victim’s family filed a wrongful death claim against the defendant first responders. Under Maryland law, to be successful in a claim against a first responder, the plaintiffs must prove gross negligence, as opposed to simple negligence. Gross negligence, according to the court’s opinion, is a high bar to prove. Simple negligence is falling below the ordinary level of care that a reasonable individual would use in a similar situation. Gross negligence, on the other hand, is an intentional and reckless disregard of the consequences of one’s actions or how they may affect others. This is a difficult standard, and to be considered gross negligence the conduct must be extraordinary or outrageous.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a written opinion in a premises liability lawsuit dealing with the naming of government defendants in a personal injury case. The case is instructive for Maryland premises liability plaintiffs because similar requirements are in place here in Maryland that may prevent a plaintiff’s full recovery if she fails to name certain parties in her complaint.

The Facts of the Case

After a young girl died in an amusement park accident on a New Jersey boardwalk, her parents filed a premises liability lawsuit against several defendants, all of which were related to the amusement park operation. At the time of the accident, the plaintiffs’ daughter was on a school trip. The plaintiffs did not name their daughter’s school in the lawsuit.

In a pre-trial motion, the defendants collectively moved to add the daughter’s school, arguing that there was evidence suggesting the school officials were also negligent and partially responsible for the girl’s death. However, the defendants failed to provide timely notice of the pending lawsuit to the school.

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Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court heard a case brought by a grieving mother against the lifeguard she claimed was responsible for her son’s death. In the case, Beals v. State of Michigan, the plaintiff’s 19-year-old son who suffered from severe learning disabilities drowned while at a state-run swimming pool designed for children with learning disabilities.

The evidence at trial showed that there were 24 others in the pool at the time of the boy’s death. The lifeguard, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, was on duty but didn’t see the young man become submerged. In fact, no one in the pool saw the woman’s son go under water. It wasn’t until minutes later that another swimmer who had goggles on saw the boy at the bottom of the pool. Swimmers yelled for the lifeguard, but he didn’t respond for another several minutes. When emergency personnel arrived, they pronounced the boy dead.

The boy’s mother filed suit against the State of Michigan, as the operator of the pool, as well as the lifeguard, as a state employee. The lifeguard asserted “sovereign immunity” as a defense and asked the court to dismiss the case against him.

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Protests in Baltimore continued last week despite the Mayor’s recent announcement that he will be enforcing a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew throughout the city. According to a recent article published by NPR, police responded to last week’s events with smoke and flash grenades. It is not clear how many people were injured by police in the riots so far.

Of course, the impetus for the crowds in the streets of Baltimore was the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a black male who after being arrested by police mysteriously suffered a serious spinal injury that eventually claimed his life.

Police Violence and Citizen’s Rights

There may be no more apt time than the present to discuss the rights of citizens to remain free from violent police actions, given the recent events in Baltimore. Generally speaking, police must act within the dictates of the law and may not use more force than necessary to effectuate a lawful arrest. Once an arrest is made, police are not permitted to “rough up” or otherwise harm someone who is in their custody. Indeed, this is what was so upsetting about the Freddie Gray situation.

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Due to a law enacted in the 1980s, Maryland plaintiffs are limited in the amount they are able to recover from municipalities across the state. According to an article by the Washington Post, this has led one woman to challenge the law that kept her from retaining the $11+ million award she received after a Prince George’s County police officer killed her husband while he was having a beer outside in Langley Park.

The Facts of the Case

Evidently, the officer was off duty at the time and approached the woman’s husband because he was drinking in public. However, for some reason the confrontation escalated, and eventually the officer shot the man, killing him. The officer claimed that he was acting in self-defense, since the man was reaching for his gun. However, witnesses told a different story, explaining that the man never fought back and that the officer was the aggressor.

At Trial the Plaintiff Wins

At trial, the jury heard all the evidence and determined that the officer—as well as the County—was responsible for the wrongful death of the woman’s husband and returned a verdict in her favor for over $11 million.

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