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Wrongful Death

Wrongful Death cases are those that arise when a relative or friend is killed because of another person’s failure to use ordinary care (called “negligence”). These cases can arise from bad driving, product failures, doctors who are not careful, dentists who fail to recognize obvious signs of oral cancer and many other types of negligence. Often negligence can be attributed to a business or company if it played a role in causing the harm (for example, a delivery company forcing its employees to work more hours than they should, causing a driver to fall asleep at the wheel).

It is very important to hire a lawyer who has experience with these cases and knows the law. Why? Because the rules and law governing these cases varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Below is some information on how Maryland and the District of Columbia differ. First, two important concepts: “non-economic damages” and “economic damages.” Non-economic damages are losses like mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, the loss of society, companionship, comfort, protection, care, attention, advice, counsel or guidance that a spouse or child would probably have experienced in the future. See Maryland Civil Pattern Jury Instruction 10:22. Economic damages typically come from costs or other financial losses arising from the death, such as loss of earnings, loss of benefits, medical bills, loss of services and other quantifiable expenses. Id.


Non-economic Damages

Maryland has “caps” on “non-economic damages.” These caps are limits on the amount that can be recovered in a personal injury case. They differ depending on whether the case arises from medical negligence or nursing home lawsuits, or other types of personal injury lawsuits. [1] They can be incredibly unfair in wrongful death cases because some wrongful death victims do not have significant economic damages (jurors are kept in the dark about the cap on damages, the Judge will reduce any award that jurors give that exceeds the cap after their verdict is given). For example, a retiree who died in a car crash that was not her fault would have a very small economic claim -- and a non-economic claim that would be capped under Maryland law -- leaving her surviving spouse with a relatively small claim despite the tremendous value of her life to him.

In Maryland, a spouse, parent, and child may be eligible to recover “loss of solatium” damages for the death of a spouse, minor child, or parent of a minor child [2].” Loss of solatium means harms and losses such as mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, companionship, comfort, protection, marital care, parental care, fillial care, attention, advice, counsel, training, guidance, or education.” Md. Cts. and Jud. Proc. Code Annot. § 3-904(d).

Maryland does not allow parents of a child decedent to recover for income the child could have generated beyond age 18.

Maryland also allows the personal representative of the estate of decedent to bring what is called a “survival action.” This type of claim can recover damages to which the decedent was entitled while alive. So for example, if – and I recognize that this is a deeply unpleasant topic – the decedent knew for a period of time that she was about to die, the personal representative could file suit for the pain and suffering endured by the decedent before she died. In addition:

  • A decedent’s expenses, like hospital bills, between the time of her injury and her death are recoverable in a survival action. See Rhone v. Fisher, 167 A.2d 773, 777 (Md. 1961).
  • Also, funeral expenses may be awarded in a survival action. Tri-State Poultry Cooperative, Inc. v. Carey, 57 A.2d 812, 817-818 (Md. 1948).
District of Columbia

While the District does not have a cap on non-economic damages in personal injury cases, it does not allow survivors of the decedent in a wrongful death case to recover for solatium damages. It does, however, as part of its Wrongful Death Act, allow jurors to consider the financial support that the decedent furnished or could have been expected to provide to each beneficiary. Std. Jury Insts. of the Dist. of Col. § 14.05. In doing so, the jurors may consider the earnings and earning capacity of the decedent, and the probable joint life expectancy of the decedent with each of the beneficiaries. They may also set a dollar amount on the reasonable value of any services that the decedent would have provided to each beneficiary over their joint life expectancies. An economist should be retained to factor in the effect of inflation on these sums, and they must then be discounted to present cash value.

Like Maryland, the District does allow a survival action to be brought in order to claim similar categories of damages. Id. at §14.01 and 14.03.

Unlike Maryland, on the economic damages side, an economist will often be allowed to project the earnings of a child decedent beyond age 18 based on, among other things, the decedent’s normal life expectancy, his or her educational achievement, the educational achievement of his or her parents, and their station in life. [3] The economist may take into account the effect of inflation on future income. Next, the economist must then reduce the projected earnings figure by the amounts that the decedent would have spent on living expenses and taxes. Finally, the economist must discount this amount to present cash value.

Other Issues

Okay, so what if the decedent was injured in the District, the death occurred in the District, and the person causing the death was employed by the District’s government, but...the decedent lived in Maryland? In holding that D.C. law applied to the case, the D.C. Court of Appeals found that the first three factors outweighed the last one. Herbert v. District of Colombia, 808 A.2d 776 (D.C. 2002).

In some cases, a grieving spouse or children, or both, may need counseling to help them recover (as well as they can) from their loss. Eric knows where to find qualified professionals who can help survivors to deal with their loss.

As you can see from the writing above, a Wrongful Death case often requires a team of experts for the Plaintiffs to bring a proper case. In certain cases, this team should include a vocational rehabilitation counselor, an economist, and a grief therapist.

If a relative, loved one or friend has died as a result of another person’s or business’s negligence, contact Eric at 240-467-5741 for a free consultation. He’ll treat you with professionalism and respect, and give the case the attention it deserves.

[1] For example, until October 1, 2014, the cap for one plaintiff’s non-economic damages is $725,000 in a medical negligence case; $785,000 in other personal injury cases.

[2] Additionally, an unmarried child who is not a minor may recover solatium damages if the child is 21 years old or younger or a parent contributed at least 50% of the child’s support within the 12-month period immediately before the date of death of the child.

[3] Thus, cases can vary greatly based on factors that are not necessarily obvious (or fair).

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