Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

In a recent report from the Associated Press, the attorney in charge of compensating the victims of the recent rash of crashes due to the GM recalls announced that there will be no limit to the amount of money GM will shell out to victims and their families. Currently, thirteen deaths have been linked to various accidents due to recalls in GM automobiles over the course of the last year. This figure, however, may be artificially low, as it relies on GM’s own admissions. It is expected that hundreds of other lawsuits will be filed once the specifics of the fund are established.

The recalls affected a number of General Motor vehicles, but were primarily centered around the Saturn Ion and the Chevrolet Cobalt. Each of these vehicles had ignition switch problems that had the potential to leave drivers with no way to control the vehicle.

The attorney in charge of compensation—who is paid by GM, but is not technically an employee of the company—says that the most recent recalls will not be eligible for the limitless compensation fund, as the company sees the most recent recalls as a separate issue. Additionally, only those lawsuits alleging problems with a vehicle’s ignition switch will be eligible for the recovery fund.

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Last October, Secret Service agents and Capitol Police officers shot and killed a woman who failed to stop her black Infinity at a security checkpoint and led them on a chase throughout the nation’s capitol. According to an article by the National Journal, the officers and agents will not be prosecuted by the Justice Department. However, the civil charges alleging the wrongful death of the victim still remain.

According to police documents, the woman failed to stop at a security checkpoint, knocking over a bicycle rack with her car, which knocked down a police officer. From there, she sped away towards Capitol Hill. She drove her car over a curb near the Reflecting Pool, where she was surrounded by officers. She then put the car in reverse and hit one officer. It was at this point that the officers shot the woman. She was shot five times from two different directions. Her 14-month-old child was in the back seat the whole time. The child was not injured, thankfully.

The Justice Department stood by the officers’ decision to use deadly force, explaining that situation fit within the parameters for the permissible use of deadly force. The family of the woman, however, still has a pending wrongful death action against the officers and the police force for using excessive and unnecessary force.

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Earlier this year, a man with Down Syndrome was killed when three police officers moonlighting as mall security officers tried to detain the man for repeatedly viewing the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” without a ticket. According to a report by the Washington Post, the officers tried to forcibly remove the man and in the process fractured his larynx, causing him to suffocate. The medical examiner listed the death as a homicide, but the district attorney decided not to press criminal charges.

Evidently, the man’s family has filed suit against the State of Maryland, claiming that the treatment of their loved one was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The mall operator as well as the cinema are also named in the suit.

Maryland’s Response

The State of Maryland is asking the federal court hearing the case to dismiss the suit, arguing that the man was targeted by the police officers not because of his disability but because he was breaking the law.

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The Brooklyn, New York-based company, Tough Mudder, is facing a law suit filed by a Maryland woman who lost her son after he drowned in a Tough Mudder competition. Tough Mudder is an 11-mile race with obstacles throughout the entire course. The obstacles tend to be extreme in nature, and often involve climbing, swimming, balancing, and sprinting.

According to a report by CBS Baltimore, the man died during the 2013 Tough Mudder event in West Virginia. Specifically, he died on the “Walk the Plank” obstacle, which involved climbing up a wall and then jumping off a platform 15 feet into the water. Evidently, the man jumped off the platform, and another woman jumped right after him, landing on top of him and preventing him from surfacing.

According to the lawsuit, Tough Mudder was experiencing a particularly large crowd that day and took shortcuts on safety. For example, the plaintiff claims that there was only one volunteer stationed at the obstacle and that the volunteer had his or her back turned when they were telling racers to jump. Thus, the volunteer could have no idea if the path was clear for the next racer.

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Earlier this year in April, the family of one of the Navy Yard Shooting victims filed suit in a Florida state court for the wrongful death of their loved one. According to a report by the Washington Post, the lawsuit names the United States government and two government contractors as defendants.

A similar suit was filed last year, but was dismissed for procedural reasons. This time around, the victim’s family added the two government contractors as defendants. The victim’s family is claiming that the government contractors who employed the shooter failed to adequately check his background and didn’t pay attention to the several signs of mental instability.

The suit also relies on the federal government’s own investigation into the shooting, claiming that the government was negligent in failing to secure the Navy Yard and also that the government failed to respond to the signs of mental health issues that the shooter exhibited in the time leading up to the tragic event.

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Caps on noneconomic damages, enacted in many states under the banner of “tort reform,” have brought uncertain results. While the stated purpose is to prevent litigation from driving up the cost of medical care, damage caps often lead in practice to injustice for victims of medical malpractice. A family in Florida challenged that state’s damage cap statute in federal court on constitutional grounds, after a court cut their judgment in half. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found no violation of the U.S. Constitution, but it asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. After nearly two years of review, the Florida court ruled that the state’s damage cap violates equal protection, finding that it “bears no rational relationship” to the goal of alleviating a “medical malpractice insurance crisis.”

More than half of all U.S. states, including Maryland, have laws capping noneconomic damages in medical malpractice and other personal injury cases. “Noneconomic damages” refer to intangible injuries like pain and suffering, mental anguish, loss of consortium, and disfigurement. Under Maryland law, the amount of the cap in medical malpractice cases increases by $15,000 every January 1. In 2014, the amount is $740,000, or $925,000 in wrongful death cases with two or more beneficiaries. Florida’s cap, which does not increase year-to-year, is $500,000 for medical injuries and $1 million for wrongful death.

The lawsuit challenging the Florida statute involves a woman who died due to complications after giving birth via caesarean section in February 2006. The birth was performed by U.S. Air Force medical personnel at a private hospital. Her parents, individually and on behalf of her estate and her infant son, sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. A district judge ruled for the plaintiffs after a bench trial, awarding them over $980,000 in economic damages and $2 million in noneconomic damages. The noneconomic damage award was reduced to $1 million because of the damage cap.

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The family of a man who was killed in an altercation with off-duty sheriff’s deputies at a Maryland movie theater have filed an amended complaint in their wrongful death and survival lawsuit. Estate of Saylor, et al, v. Regal Cinemas, Inc., et al, No. 1:13-cv-03089, am. complaint (D. Md., Mar. 11, 2014). Several defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit late last year, claiming that the lawsuit failed to state a claim on which the court could grant relief against them. The plaintiffs sought and received leave from the court to amend their complaint, dropping two defendants and adding the State of Maryland in March 2014.

The decedent, Robert Ethan Saylor, was twenty-six years old at the time of his death on January 12, 2013. He had Down Syndrome, with an I.Q. of 40 and physical features commonly associated with the condition. According to the amended complaint, he was about five-feet-six-inches tall and weighed 294 pounds. He went to a movie theater in Frederick on the evening of January 12 with an aide. After the movie, Saylor reportedly became angry when the aide asked if he wanted to go home. The aide called Saylor’s mother, who suggested she go get the car. She left Saylor outside the theater to get the car, which was permitted under his care plan, and when she returned found that he had gone back inside.

A manager approached the aide, and she explained Saylor’s condition, explained that he would “freak out” if touched, id. at 6, and recommended that no one speak to him. The manager then asked an off-duty sheriff’s deputy working as a security guard to remove Saylor. The guard called in two additional security guards, also off-duty deputies, to assist. When they attempted to physically remove Saylor, he resisted, and the guards used force against him. Saylor suffered a fractured larynx, and was pronounced dead at the hospital just before midnight. The medical examiner ruled it a homicide. The plaintiffs describe it as a “violent, terrifying, and painful death.” Id. at 7.

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A Texas hospital failed to supervise a man known to have mental health problems, resulting in the man’s death, according to a lawsuit filed by the man’s family. Martinez, et al v. Oak Bend Medical Group, et al, No. 14-DCV-212068, 2nd am. pet. (Tex. Dist. Ct., Ft. Bend Co., March 3, 2014). The lack of supervision allowed the man, who had already left the hospital unnoticed once, to leave the hospital and walk to nearby train tracks, where he was struck and killed by a train. The lawsuit assert causes of action for negligence against the hospital and the rail company, as well as claims under the state’s wrongful death and survival statutes.

According to the plaintiff’s second amended petition, police found the decedent, Arturo Martinez, unconscious outside of his father’s house in Richmond, Texas on December 2, 2013. They took Martinez, who had a history of mental illness, to Oak Bend Medical Center for treatment. Hospital staff allegedly knew about Martinez’s mental health issues. The following day, Martinez left the hospital unnoticed, having removed his own IV and catheter. Emergency personnel found him later the same day and brought him back to the hospital. The petition claims that Oak Bend was supposed to assign staff and security personnel to supervise Martinez.

Despite the presence of security personnel, Martinez managed to leave the hospital unobserved again on December 6. He left the building and walked onto nearby train tracks. An oncoming train, which allegedly failed to yield or give any warning of its approach, struck Martinez. He was brought back to Oak Bend with blunt force trauma injuries. The hospital performed surgery, allegedly without first obtaining the family’s permission, but Martinez died later that day.

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A lawsuit alleges that sheriff’s deputies negligently placed a locksmith in an unreasonably dangerous situation by bringing him along on an eviction without warning him of specific known risks, resulting in his death. Engert, et al v. Stanislaus County, et al, No. 1:13-cv-00126, 2nd am. complaint (E.D. Ca., Oct. 23, 2013). The individual subject to eviction was reportedly known to be both heavily armed and violent, but the sheriff’s deputies allegedly did not warn the locksmith of the danger, nor did they provide any safeguards for him. The locksmith’s widow sued the county and various county officials for violations of her late husband’s civil and constitutional rights, negligence, and wrongful death.

Two deputies of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, Robert Paris and Michael Glinskas, were assigned on April 12, 2012 to perform an eviction at an apartment in Modesto, California. According to the plaintiff’s most recent amended complaint, the apartment’s occupant, James Ferrario, was known to the sheriff’s department as a “dangerous, mentally unstable individual, with weapons in his home,” and with a history of threats and assaults. The deputies brought a locksmith, Glendon Engert, along to open the apartment door.

The deputies allegedly did not warn Engert of the possible threat posed by Ferrario. Engert’s position in front of a doorway, with a possibly armed individual inside, is reportedly known as a “vertical coffin.” Ferrario opened fire from inside the apartment with armor-piercing bullets, killing Engert and Paris. After an eleven-hour standoff, Ferrario committed suicide. A search of his apartment yielded twenty-two firearms, including an M16 and an SKS rifle, and about five hundred rounds of ammunition.

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Maryland state law imposes a cap on noneconomic damages in all personal injury and wrongful death cases. This applies to “nonpecuniary” damages like pain and suffering, mental anguish, disfigurement, physical impairment, and loss of consortium. MD Cts & Jud Pro Code §§ 3-2A-01(h), 11-108(a)(2). Advocates of damage caps, commonly known as “tort reform,” claim that they are necessary to keep insurance costs under control, particularly in the medical field, and therefore to keep costs down for the public. Opponents of tort reform, including advocates for patients’ rights and others, say that after more than a decade, caps on damages in personal injury litigation have not stopped an increase in healthcare and other costs. Maryland courts, meanwhile, have repeatedly affirmed noneconomic damages caps against constitutional challenges.

The law prohibits informing the jury about the noneconomic damage cap in personal injury, wrongful death, or medical malpractice trials. If a jury enters an award that exceeds the cap, the court is directed to reduce the amount accordingly. As of October 1, 2013, noneconomic damages in personal injury and wrongful death claims, other than medical malpractice claims, are capped at $785,000 for all claims arising from a single incident. The only exception to this is a wrongful death claim with multiple beneficiaries, in which case state law increases the maximum amount by fifty percent. The cap increases by $15,000 every October 1. MD Cts & Jud Pro Code § 11-108(b)(2). For medical malpractice claims, the cap is $740,000 as of January 1, 2014, increased by twenty-five percent for a wrongful death claim with more than one beneficiary. This cap also increases by $15,000 every year. MD Cts & Jud Pro Code § 3-2A-09(b). The for medical malpractice.

The advocacy group Public Citizen has criticized the idea that damage caps are necessary to control costs. Its data show that malpractice payouts in 2010 were the lowest at any point in the previous twenty years when adjusting for inflation, and the lowest since 1998 in absolute dollars. Annual malpractice payments reportedly decreased by nearly twelve percent between 2000 and 2010, and accounted for only 0.0013% of total health care costs nationwide in 2010. During the same ten-year period, national spending on health care rose by ninety percent.

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