Articles Posted in Wrongful Death

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When a person dies in a truck accident, the person’s loved ones will often pursue a wrongful death claim against the party that caused the crash. As commercial truck drivers have duties and obligations that go beyond the understanding of the average layperson, in many truck accident cases, the parties will rely on experts to offer testimony regarding whether the truck driver breached the duty of care. There are limits as to what an expert can testify to, however, and as shown in a recent wrongful death case decided by a Massachusetts appellate court, if the expert exceeds his or her permitted scope, his or her testimony may be stricken. If you lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, you should consult a skilled Massachusetts personal injury attorney to discuss what damages you may be able to recover.

Factual and Procedural Background of the Case

It is reported that the plaintiff’s decedent was riding a motorcycle when he was struck by a commercial truck entering the roadway. The truck was driven by the defendant driver and owned by the defendant trucking company. The decedent ultimately died from his injuries, and the personal representative of his estate filed a wrongful death suit against the defendants. Following a trial, a jury found in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff subsequently moved for a new trial, arguing, in part, that the trial court erred in excluding portions of the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony.

Permissible Scope of Expert Testimony

In Massachusetts, a trial court judge has ample discretion regarding what expert testimony he or she admits. Thus, an abuse of discretion will only be found in cases in which, after considering any relevant factors, the judge’s decision is beyond the range of reasonable alternatives and constitutes a clear abuse of discretion.

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Wrongful death claims allow a personal representative of an estate to seek compensation for any pain and suffering their loved one experienced prior to his or her death, as well as medical expenses and loss of the deceased person’s services and income. While it is obvious that a wrongful death claim can only be pursued in the event of a person’s death, it is less clear whether an arbitration agreement entered into by a decedent is binding on the decedent’s personal representative in the pursuit of a wrongful death claim.

The  United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently certified the question of whether an agreement to arbitrate entered into by a person prior to his or her death is binding on the person’s beneficiaries to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). If you suffered the loss of a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, it is essential to consult an experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney to assist you in pursuing your wrongful death claim.

The Decedent’s Arbitration Agreement

It is reported that the decedent was taken by ambulance to a nursing home run by the plaintiffs. Upon her admission, the defendant, who was the decedent’s daughter, signed multiple documents on behalf of the decedent, including an Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreement (the Agreement). The defendant was permitted to sign these documents pursuant to a document executed by the decedent, granting the defendant power of attorney. The Agreement stated that any disputes would be resolved exclusively by mediation, and if mediation was unsuccessful, binding arbitration. The decedent died and the defendant subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the plaintiffs in state court.

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Most personal injury claims assert a theory of liability based on negligence. Parties alleging negligence must prove a duty, a breach of the duty, and causation to recover on their claims. To show causation, a plaintiff must set forth sufficient evidence to show that the harm sustained was a foreseeable result of any alleged breach. In Almeida v. Pinto,  the Court of Appeals found that the tenuous connection between the injuries the plaintiff sustained and the defendant’s breach was insufficient to permit the plaintiff’s case to proceed.  If you suffered injuries due to someone else’s negligence, you should consult a seasoned Massachusetts personal injury attorney to analyze the facts of your case and whether you should seek damages.

Factual Scenario

Allegedly the defendants hired a contractor to install vinyl siding on the second and third floor of their residence. The defendants paid the contractor $200.00 which was the price suggested by the contractor. The contractor began the installation without a helmet, harness, or any other safety equipment. He fell from a ladder and struck his head and ultimately passed away from his injuries. The plaintiff, who was the administrator of the contractor’s estate, subsequently filed a lawsuit against the defendants, alleging their negligence led to the contractor’s death. The defendants moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion. The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court affirmed.

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If you seek to pursue compensation for personal injuries caused by someone else’s negligence, it is essential to retain an attorney that can identify all parties that may be responsible for your harm and set forth all possible theories of liability, as the failure to do so can be fatal to your claim. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts recently held in Williams v. Steward Health Care System, that a hospital could not be held directly liable for harm caused by a psychiatric patient that was released by his treating physician. While the court noted that it was possible for the hospital to be liable under a theory of vicarious liability, plaintiff did not assert that cause of action. If you suffered injuries due to someone else’s negligence, you should consult with an experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney to discuss the facts of your case and your options for recovering damages.

Factual Background   

Allegedly, in Williams, the assailant fatally stabbed his neighbor. The assailant had been a patient at the hospital under multiple court orders. The orders directed he was to be committed to the hospital due to mental illness until there was no longer a danger of serious harm due to his illness, for up to six months. The assailant was admitted for twenty-one days, after which the doctor treating the assailant purportedly determined he no longer posed a risk of harm due to his mental illness and discharged the assailant. Approximately three weeks after his release the assailant allegedly broke into his neighbor’s apartment and fatally wounded her.

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Many people avoid thinking about what will happen to their property and assets after their death, and ultimately die without a will to determine how their estate will be disbursed. Family members of an individual who dies intestate may not see the necessity in determining how the estate should be divided and may delay in taking any action to raise an estate and appoint a personal representative. The failure to take prompt action when a person passes away can have a damaging effect on your ability to control the estate’s assets, however. A recent Massachusetts estate planning decision held that you waive certain rights if you do not act in a timely manner.

In Bennett v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the Superior Court of Massachusetts defined what rights a limited personal representative has with regards to a decedent’s estate.  Specifically, the court addressed whether a personal representative who is granted limited authority under the Uniform Probate Code (UPC) has standing to pursue tort actions that are an asset of the decedent’s estate. In Bennet, the Plaintiff’s father died on March 7, 2014. Section 3-108 of the UPC provides that no testacy or appointment proceeding may take place more than three years after a decedent’s death. If no personal representative has been appointed within three years of a decedent’s death, section 3-108(4) of the UPC allows for a personal representative to be named, but only for the limited purpose of determining successors to the estate. Section 3-108(4) specifically states, however, the representative does not have the right to possess any estate assets. Plaintiff was appointed the limited representative of the estate, pursuant to section 3-108(4), on July 26, 2017.

Plaintiff subsequently brought claims of wrongful death and civil conspiracy against the Defendant, as the limited personal representative of the estate of her deceased father.  The Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint, arguing the Plaintiff’s appointment as a personal representative of the estate under section 3-108(4) of the UPC did not grant her the authority to pursue a wrongful death claim or any tort claim that belonged to the decedent and became a part of the decedent’s estate upon his death.

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The Commonwealth’s Supreme Court reviewed a new issue recently in a Massachusetts wrongful death law suit.  The legal question was whether a pharmacy was required by law to notify the prescribing physician after the patient’s health insurer advises the pharmacy that it needs a “prior authorization form” filled out by the physician.  The decedent was prescribed Topamax to treat her epilepsy.  The medication controlled her life-threatening seizures.  Her insurer paid for this prescription twice in the months before her nineteenth birthday, but refused to do so afterward because it did not have a prior authorization form for an insured who is older than eighteen.  The woman’s family made multiple attempts to obtain the medication, but the pharmacy refused to fill it.  The family could not afford the medication without insurance and the woman died from a fatal seizure that year.

The woman’s mother and executor brought an action for wrongful death and punitive damages against the pharmacy, her daughter’s neurologist, and the neurological practice.  The mother testified at trial that the pharmacy repeatedly told her daughter and other family members the pharmacy would notify her doctor about the need for prior authorization, but the physician and his practice denied receiving notice.  The trial court granted the pharmacy’s motion for the summary judgment on the legal basis that the pharmacy had no legal duty to the decedent to notify her doctor and the practice about the need for prior authorization.

Prior authorization was required by MassHealth to establish the medical effectiveness and necessity of the medicine.  This was to ensure there were no other cost-effective options to use, or generic drugs.  The form was two pages long and took less than ten minutes to complete. It provided information about the diagnosis, the prescribed medication, basic patient  information ,the doctor’s information, and the prescriber’s signature.  The form was accepted only by the prescribing physician.  Pharmacies and patients were not allowed to complete the form.  The insurer only told the pharmacy because it was the pharmacy that submitted the claim for coverage. 

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The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently determined there was no special relationship between a university and its student that would create a duty for the university to take action to prevent his suicide.  Without an obligation to act, the university was not liable for the student’s death.  In this Massachusetts wrongful death case (SJC-12329), the Supreme Court acknowledged that a special relationship could be formed between a university and its student, but it wasn’t present here.

This case originated with a graduate student who lived off campus.  He struggled taking tests and sought help from the program coordinator.  The coordinator referred him to the school’s disability services, but the student declined to use the disability accommodations.  Notes of the meeting between the disability coordinator and the student show he declined to connect with the school’s medical division, believing it would not help.  The student was also referred to the university’s mental health services, where he also turned down assistance.  The student denied suicidal ideation. 

Later, the student admitted he had long suffered from depression and had made two prior suicide attempts in college.  The student denied having any active thoughts of suicide.  The student agreed to return at the beginning of the school year to address his test-taking issues and mental health.  However, during the summer, he expressed frustration at the course of action taken by the university with referrals to mental health services.  The student relayed to school officials he was actively under the care of a psychiatrist.  When he returned to school, he again acknowledged he had been treated for depression by a private physician.  After additional meetings, the school reached out to the private physician, who accepted the information provided and expressed concern without formally acknowledging he was treating the student. 

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Several things must be considered when a personal injury settlement is reached. One of these considerations is whether the injured person is required by law to notify and pay a portion of the settlement to a third party. Some entities, often health care providers, are allowed to place a lien on settlements or benefits so that they can be paid for the services previously rendered. The Appeals Court recently examined an appeal by the estate of a woman injured in a Massachusetts car accident, which was ordered to provide payment to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services (MassHealth).

The estate reached a settlement with the defendant driver who caused the car accident and subsequent injury. This accident aggravated the now-deceased plaintiff’s dementia prior to her death a year after the accident. The estate filed suit within two years after her passing and ultimately reached a settlement of $250,000. Before the injured person died, MassHealth provided over $18,000 worth of medical care and imposed a lien on the claim for reimbursement of expenses paid for the injured person’s care.

The estate and MassHealth conferred about the lien prior to the settlement, discussing the possibility to reduce the lien. However, nothing came of these discussions because the injured person’s attorney did not submit the forms that would reduce the lien. After the settlement was reached with the defendant driver, MassHealth issued demand letters to the estate for payment. Eventually, MassHealth learned it was not named on the settlement check. Initially, MassHealth attempted to discuss the matter with the estate’s attorney, but it eventually moved to intervene on the settlement. The lower court granted the motion for intervention and ordered payment of the medical expenses. The estate appealed.

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You do not often see a criminal case intersecting with a Massachusetts personal injury action, but a recent medical malpractice decision issued by the Appeals Court shows how the former affects the latter. The original action was filed by the husband of the decedent, claiming the treating physicians and health care facility caused the death of his wife through their negligent care of her during her knee replacement surgery. Early on, the estate took the deposition of one of the anesthesiologists involved in the injured wife’s care. Soon afterward, this physician had his medical licenses revoked and was indicted for Medicare fraud. He then filed to bifurcate the civil trial and invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

The other defendant anesthesiologist filed a notice of his intention to use parts of the other doctor’s deposition, since he would be unavailable. The anesthesiologist invoking his Constitutional privilege and the health care provider both settled with the estate, leaving the remaining anesthesiologist as the lone defendant. The judge denied the defendant doctor’s motion to use the deposition. At trial, the doctor invoking the privilege did not appear, and the judge allowed parts of the deposed testimony to be read during trial. The court allowed the defendant to read the part of the deposition in which the other doctor admitted his medical license was suspended in three states. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the remaining defendant anesthesiologist.

The Appeals Court noted the trial court relied on the exception to the evidentiary rule that allows hearsay evidence through prior recorded testimony when the witness is unavailable. To determine whether this exception can be applied, the court must determine the declarant is unavailable and evaluate whether the prior recorded statement was given in a proceeding that substantially addressed the same issues in the present proceeding, with similar opportunities for cross-examination. The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s assessment that the other anesthesiologist was unavailable. The Appeals Court determined the doctor unequivocally indicated his intent to assert his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination.

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Many products consumed by Massachusetts residents can be dangerous as well as useful. If a product contains inherent risks, manufacturers may be obligated to warn the consumer of these hazards. Manufacturers are liable for injuries caused by a failure to warn. This duty was discussed in a Massachusetts product liability decision. An executrix filed a wrongful death lawsuit after the decedent was found underneath a truck on his farm. His clothing was caught in a spinning U-joint that was a part of the truck, causing him to die by accidental asphyxiation. His widow filed suit against the manufacturer that produced the original core of the truck and the company that manufactured the equipment used to lift the dump body of the truck.

The deceased had originally bought the truck from an independent dealer as an “incomplete vehicle” in which there was a chassis, engine, and cab. It did not have the necessary components needed to perform the intended functions of a dump truck. The decedent transformed it into a functioning dump truck by installing the body and the mechanical system for tilting it. This was all completed decades before the accident, and no record was kept of who provided the work. The power take off (PTO) made by the second defendant connected to the transmission so that it could help power various kinds of equipment. This was achieved by the PTO spinning a post when it was engaged, which then powered the part attached to it.

The dump truck had several exposed parts like the auxiliary drive shaft and U-joint, which presented several dangers to anyone working below the truck when the PTO was running. Each respective manufacturer provided a warning of the risks that would be present in the future with a completed vehicle. The manufacturer of the truck provided a specific warning about the uses of PTOs and any related equipment. The relevant section of the manual contained a separate box marked “warning” with several exclamation points. General warnings were provided by the maker of the PTO, which advised avoiding going underneath the vehicle while the engine was running. It also admonished against working near the rotating drive shaft, due to the possibility of getting entangled.

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