Adventist Healthcare, Inc. v. Mattingly, 244 Md. App. 259, 233 A.3d 1025 (2020)
James Mattingly, Jr. (“Decedent”) tragically passed away in 2014, only five days after receiving a surgical procedure performed by Dr. Anand and Adventist Healthcare, Inc. (“Defendants”). The Decedent’s mother, Susan Mattingly, individually and on behalf the Decedent’s Estate (“Plaintiffs”), filed suit in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, alleging wrongful death against Dr. Anand and Adventist Healthcare, Inc. (“Defendants”).
Plaintiffs claimed that the Defendants failed to timely diagnose and treat a bowel leak following the Decedent’s surgery, ultimately causing his death. Decedent’s mother procured a private autopsy of the Decedent to determine the cause of death. Following the autopsy, the Decedent’s mother elected to have the Decedent’s remains cremated.
Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that the cremation of the Decedent constituted spoliation. In determining whether spoliation occurred, a court must consider whether there has been an act of destruction, whether the destroyed evidence was discoverable, whether there was an intent to destroy evidence, and whether the destruction occurred at a time after suit has been filed, or, if before, at a time when the filing was fairly perceived as imminent.
Defendants argued in their motion for summary judgment that the Plaintiffs engaged in a ‘clear act of destruction’ when they obtained a private autopsy and then cremated the Decedent without any notice to the Defendants. Defendants further argued they had no previous opportunity to perform their own autopsy or investigation of the body. The motion was denied, renewed at the close of evidence, and denied again. However, the Defendants then sought a jury instruction on the spoliation of evidence, but the court refused. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Plaintiffs in the amount of $1,350,000, joint and severally against the Defendants.
The Defendants appealed the verdict, arguing that the trial court committed error by denying their motions for judgment and omitting the requested spoliation jury instruction. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals (“COSA”) found no abuse of discretion by the trial court. The COSA referenced Maryland Health General Code §5-502 and §5-509(c) to support the notion that the Decedent’s mother, a person holding authority over the disposition of her son’s remains, has no duty to preserve evidence of her child’s remains.
Maryland law does not place “cash before conscience,” thereby ensuring that a wrongful death claim will not disturb the right to a proper burial.
-Bryce Ziskind, Associate Attorney