Md. SC: Circuit court went too far in dismissing wrongful death suit

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 14, 2012


ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) - The Maryland Supreme Court of Appeals said in a ruling this month that a lower court went too far in dismissing a wrongful death lawsuit against a medical system simply for failure to identify another plaintiff.

The state's highest court, in its May 3 opinion, reversed the Baltimore City Circuit Court's decision in favor of defendant University of Maryland Medical Systems Corporation.

The plaintiffs, a widow of decedent Elliott Muti and their children, asserted a medical malpractice claim against UMMSC nearly three years after Muti died in March 2005.

Their complaint was later amended, in February 2008, to add claims for wrongful death.

However, in the complaint, the plaintiffs failed to identify, or notify, a stepson from a previous marriage whom Muti had adopted, Ricky Muti.

It wasn't until November 2008, when UMMSC served interrogatories on Elliott Muti's wife, Giuseppina, that the answers listed Ricky as Elliott's child, by adoption.

As a result, in August 2009, UMMSC moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to join a necessary party -- in this case, Ricky.

UMMSC argued that the wrongful death act required "one action by all wrongful death beneficiaries against the same defendant" and that "all wrongful death beneficiaries must assert their claims within three years as a condition precedent to maintenance of their claims."

Because the plaintiffs omitted Ricky as a "use" plaintiff when asserting their wrongful death claims, the circuit court dismissed their claims.

The court noted that the plaintiffs hadn't filed any affidavit affirming they were unable to locate Ricky and that in any event, even if he could not be located, the plaintiffs were required to put "everyone" on notice of Ricky's existence or possible existence.

The plaintiffs appealed to the state's Court of Special Appeals.

That court agreed that they violated a rule of procedure, but held that the circuit court had abused its discretion by denying the plaintiffs leave to amend without first considering whether Ricky would be prejudiced by the denial.

The appeals court vacated the dismissal of the wrongful death claims, reversed the summary judgment on the survival claim and the case was remanded to the circuit court.

In its 29-page ruling, the Supreme Court vacated the appeals court's judgment as to the motion to dismiss only.

In addition, it remanded the case to that court with instructions to reverse the judgment of the circuit court and to remand the case to that court.

On remand, the circuit court should consider what, if any, sanction for the omission is "appropriate" -- that is, from the standpoint of reinforcing the requirement for naming a potential beneficiary, the Court explained.

"On the record before us, there is no basis for inferring that Ricky was omitted as a use plaintiff for the purpose of hiding the litigation from him or in the hope that the Mutis would increase their recovery," Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky, who is retired and was specially assigned, wrote for the Court.

"Under the totality of the circumstances, we hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in dismissing the plaintiffs' wrongful death claims as a sanction for the omission."

Rule 15-1001 -- the rule of procedure that requires all persons who are or may be entitled by law to damages be named as plaintiffs -- does not spell out the consequences of failure to comply with it, the Court explained.

"When a rule is violated that does not provide for the consequences of the noncompliance, the consequence is determined 'in light of the totality of the circumstances and the purpose of the rule,'" Rodowsky wrote.

The Court said it is "difficult to consider" how a claim by Ricky could have any value, even if it were timely asserted.

"Given the estrangement between the Giuseppina and Bertha (Ricky's adopted mother and Elliott's previous wife) households, it would require a state of facts bizarre in the extreme for Ricky to establish damages of any kind under these facts," Rodowsky wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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