Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Post-judgment Death Does Not Reduce Verdict That Includes Future Medical Expenses

The Maryland Court of Appeals in Spangler v. McQuitty recently issued an interesting opinion addressing the question of whether a plaintiff’s death prior to the time that post-judgment motions are ruled upon is grounds for reducing the verdict awarded to that plaintiff.  More specifically, the Court addressed whether a plaintiff whose judgment included an award for substantial future medical costs is still entitled to those costs if that plaintiff dies prior to the post-judgment motions being ruled upon and a final judgment entered.  The Court held that Plaintiff was indeed entitled to retain such an award and the trial court should not consider Plaintiff’s untimely death in deciding a Motion to Remittitur or for a New Trial.

The case in Spangler dealt with a medical malpractice claim where the jury in the underlying case had awarded Plaintiff $13,078,515.00 in total damages with $8,442.515.00 of that verdict awarded to pay for the future medical care of the minor Plaintiff.  Though the history of the case is extensive, the relevant history begins after the case was reviewed by the Court of Appeals on a separate issue and it was returned to the trial court for resolution of a post-trial motion by Defendant’s counsel that had been pending prior to the appeal.  After remand to the trial court, Plaintiff whose injuries were the subject of the case died before the post-trial motions were resolved.  Based upon this development, Defendant argued in a motion for a new trial, among other points, that the award of damages in the case for future damages should be reduced or a new trial ordered based upon the change in status of Plaintiff.  The death of Plaintiff at this juncture would make the award a windfall and would not reflect the actual damages suffered by Plaintiff. 

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendant and refused to reduce the verdict or order a new trial.  The Court held that although there was some support for the argument in favor of reducing the verdict, if they disturbed the finality of the judgment in this case, it would create the prospect of endless litigation as any judgment would be subject to revision based upon changes in circumstances in the future.  The need for finality of judgments necessarily outweighs any inequity in the damages awarded.  The Court therefore denied Defendant’s post-trial motions.

The decision in Spangler also contains a good reminder of the rules applicable when dealing with a pre-trial settlement by a co-defendant, particularly when dealing with a so called Swigert release and the effects on the remaining defendant.  In Spangler, a co-defendant Hospital settled with the plaintiff after the Hospital had been granted summary judgment in its favor, possibly in order to avoid an appeal on the summary judgment award.  The release between the plaintiff and the Hospital appears to have been based upon the Swigert model, stating that the Hospital did not admit liability and that the any subsequent award would be reduced by the pro rata share of any damages if and only if the Hospital was adjudicated to be a joint tortfeasor by a final judicial determination on the merits.  If no such finding were made, there would be no set off.  The non-settling defendant did not appeal granting of summary judgment or otherwise seek to establish liability on the settling co-defendant prior to the $13,078,515.00 award, but nevertheless requested that the Court reduce the award against him by the amount of settlement or the pro rata share of the judgment that would have been borne by the Hospital.  

Applying the Uniform Contribution Among Joint Tortfeasors Act, the Court of Appeals held that since the Hospital was in fact judicially determined not to be a joint tortfeasor through summary judgment in its favor, no reduction was warranted.  The Hospital was simply acting as a “volunteer” in the case rather than as a torfeasor.  The Hospital had never admitted liability and had never been judicially determined to be liable.  It was therefore by application of the Act not a jointtortfeasor and no reduction in judgment was required. 

Though a successful appeal of the granting of summary judgment appears to have been the only possible way that the outcome of the defendant’s request for reduction would have been different, certainly a difficult proposition, the case does provide a good reminder of the possible pitfalls that must be dealt with in a multi-defendant litigation.

Article Contributed by Tom Neary

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