Thursday, January 2, 2014

Court of Appeals Decides Application of Statute of Limitation to Claims Against Health Care Providers in Wrongful Death Claims

             In 1997 the decedent, Margaret Varner, then fifty-eight (58) years old, began seeing Defendant Massoud B. Alizadeh, M.D. (“Dr. Alizadeh”), a family practice physician. In the period of time between 1997 and early 2004, while Mrs. Varner was a regular patient of Dr. Alizadeh, she lost a substantial amount of weight and experienced symptoms including diarrhea and constipation. Dr. Alizadeh did not order or conduct any tests on Mrs. Varner to investigate the symptoms. Ultimately, on May 25, 2004, after conducting a series of untimely tests and examinations, Dr. Alizadeh referred Mrs. Varner to a general surgeon. The general surgeon performed a colonoscopy, which revealed a large tumor in her colon. Mrs. Varner was diagnosed with Stave IV colorectal cancer with liver metastasis. On March 14, 2008, Mrs. Varner passed away after the cancer spread to her spine.

            On March 8, 2011, Mrs. Varner’s surviving husband and her three children filed a Complaint in the Health Care Alternative Dispute Resolution Office of Maryland against Dr. Alizadeh and his professional association employer. The parties waived arbitration and the case was transferred to the Circuit Court for Washington County. The Circuit Court Complaint included four wrongful death counts alleging that Dr. Alizadeh was negligent and careless in his failure to conduct the timely appropriate tests and his failure to timely diagnose Mrs. Varner’s colorectal cancer. Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss arguing that the claims were precluded because Mrs. Varner had not brought a timely personal injury lawsuit against Dr. Alizadeh and could not have filed suit at the time of her death due to the applicable statute of limitations for medical malpractice claims. On December 5, 2011, following a hearing, the Court issued an Order granting Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and dismissing the action. A timely appeal was filed with the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals issued a writ of certiorari on December 14, 2012 while the case was pending in the intermediate appellate court.

            The Court considered two questions on appeal: (1) under Maryland law, is a wrongful death beneficiary’s right to file a lawsuit contingent upon the decedent’s underlying ability to file a timely negligence action as of the date of the decedent’s death?; and (2) if so, or alternatively, does Section 5-109 of the Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, the applicable statute of limitations for medical negligence claims, apply directly to a wrongful death action arising out of alleged malpractice and, if yes, does it bar the Appellants’ wrongful death action?

            The Court answered both questions in the negative, reversing the judgment of the trial court and remanding the case for further proceedings.  Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute Section 3-902 states that an action can be filed against someone whose wrongful act causes the death of another. Section 3-901, the Definitions section of the Wrongful Death Statute, defines a “wrongful act’ as “an act, neglect, or default including a felonious act which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued.” Defendants argued that a wrongful death claim requires the existence of a “wrongful act,” and that there was no actionable wrongful act in this case based on Mrs. Varner’s inability to file a medical negligence suit at the time of her death. The Appellants argued that Maryland’s wrongful death statute created a new and separate cause of action, not one dependent on the decedent’s negligence action; therefore, the three year statute of limitation provision in Section 3-904(g)(1) of the Maryland Code is the only applicable time limitation and the definition of “wrongful act” is irrelevant to the determination of whether the claims are time barred.

            Rather than basing its ruling on one party’s interpretation of the statute’s language, the Court utilized the differing views to highlight the statute’s ambiguity. In interpreting the statute’s language the Court relied on the statute’s general purpose, the Court concluded that the Legislature’s intent in crafting the Wrongful Death statute was to create an independent cause of action, separate and apart from the decedent’s own claim. Based on that ruling, the Court also ruled that the statute of limitations for such a claim could not begin to run until the decedent died; therefore, the Appellants’ claims were not time barred.

            Mummert v. Alizadeh separates the claims of beneficiaries and decedents in medical negligence cases, effectively opening the window of time in which the family members of the decedent have to file their claims.

Article submitted by Catherine A. Simanski, Esq.       

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