Thursday, June 15, 2023

Appellate Court of Maryland Holds Whether PA Common Law Marriage is Valid to Maintain a Wrongful Death Claim is a Matter for the Jury to Decide

Thomas Zadnik v. Richard F. Ambinder, M.D., et al., No. 803, Sept. Term, 2022.

            Between October 2010 and April 2013, Margaret Conway began seeing Dr. Richard Ambinder for colon cancer treatment. In 2017, Conway passed away. Subsequently, her partner, Thomas Zadnik, filed a wrongful death complaint for medical negligence in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against Ambinder and Johns Hopkins Hospital. In Maryland, such action may only be brought by the decedent’s spouse, child, or parent. The Circuit Court granted Ambinder’s motion to dismiss, and held that Zadnik did not have standing to bring forth the suit since Zadnik was not married to Conway.

Zadnik appealed this decision to the Appellate Court of Maryland, claiming he and Conway entered a valid common law marriage in Pennsylvania, in 1998 when Pennsylvania still recognized common law marriages. A common law marriage is a legal marriage between two people who have not obtained a marriage license or had the marriage solemnized by a ceremony. The Circuit Court found that Conway and Zadnik had not sufficiently established a common law marriage through clear and convincing evidence, because no one witnessed their wedding and they failed to publicly hold themselves out as married.

Writing for the Appellate Court, Judge Donald Beachley first acknowledged the doctrine of comity, noting that Maryland has never recognized common law marriage, but that Maryland must do so if it is recognized in another state. Judge Beachley then looked to Pennsylvania law to determine how parties may establish a rebuttable presumption of marriage through, inter alia, constant cohabitation, since both parties cannot be present to testify about the marriage’s existence. Under Pennsylvania law one spouse is allowed to testify to a common law marriage.  As such, Judge Beachley deems the question of valid marriage as a dispute reserved for a jury, and as a genuine dispute of material fact.

The Court also considered the Dead Man’s Statute, CJP § 9-116, which does not allow a surviving spouse to testify on behalf of a statement made by their deceased spouse. The Court concluded that if a jury found a valid marriage, then the Dead Man’s Statute could not bar Zadnik’s claim. In finding this, Judge Beachley affirmed the inapplicability of the Dead Man’s Statute to this wrongful death suit, as a wrongful death suit is meant to create a benefit for the surviving spouse, not to recover for the decedent’s loss or injury. Thus, a formerly legal style of Pennsylvania marriage never procedurally recognized in Maryland could result in damages against a Maryland defendant.

After delineating these parameters around a common law marriage involving a wrongful death suit, the Appellate Court of Maryland remanded this case to the Circuit Court for further proceedings. Once the jury decides on the validity of the marriage, the ramifications will ring prescient for medical malpractice cases in Maryland, as Washington D.C. and pre-2005 Pennsylvania recognize common law marriages, both of whom have residents often litigating in Maryland courts.

Ali Mahdi, Summer Associate 

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