Resolving a wrongful death claim in Maryland can be complicated. In Maryland a wrongful death lawsuit must include all potential wrongful death beneficiaries as either plaintiffs or use plaintiffs. Otherwise any wrongful death settlement could be vacated. Therefore, an attorney filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Maryland must name those who could possibly qualify as wrongful death beneficiaries as “Use Plaintiffs” even if the lawyer does not represent those individuals (See Maryland Rules on Wrongful Death Claims at 15-1001). This is quite different than how such claims are handled in most other States. On Friday May 26, 2010 the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (the intermediate level appellate court) issued a reported opinion in Williams v. Work & Ace American Insurance Company. The case serves as a reminder to lawyers and claimants about how wrongful death cases should be handled in Maryland.
The facts of the case are quite complicated. In a nutshell, a man died in a car crash on 9/12/02 while he was driving his work vehicle, and he was rear ended. He was survived by his wife (Lori Williams) and their 3 minor children. The decedent also was survived by two children from a prior marriage. State Farm insured the negligent driver who rear ended the decedent, and the insurance amount was only $100,000.00. State Farm offered its $100K policy limit to settle the claim with the man’s wife and children from the second marriage. There was additional uninsured motorist coverage with Ace (also known as underinsured motorist coverage). The wrongful death claim case was settled as to the estate and the 3 children of the decedent’s wife for a settlement of $850,000.00 ($100,000 policy limit from State Farm and $750,000.00 in Maryland underinsured motorist benefits. Curiously, an amended complaint naming the use plaintiffs was not filed with the Court but was apparently served on the Use Plaintiffs (the kids from the first marriage). The Circuit Court (Trial Court) approved the settlement and entered judgment. After this first settlement, suit was filed by the two children from a prior marriage. They also tried to re-open the first case in order to get their share of the wrongful death recovery.
This opinion from the Court of Special Appeals in Maryland reminds lawyers that all beneficiaries in Maryland Wrongful Death lawsuits are real parties in interest. The Maryland Appellate Court vacated the judgment since the two children from the prior marriage were not included as Use Plaintiffs in the lawsuit and their rights were not accounted for in the settlement. As the immediate past president of the Maryland Association for Justice, I am proud that in footnote 1 on page 2 of the Judge Kenney’s opinion, MAJ’s Trial Reporter Magazine Article published by Robert Michael titled “The Use Plaintiff In Maryland Wrongful Death Cases: Some Ethical Observations” is cited and recommended to all Maryland lawyers handling wrongful death cases. It is important to remember that a wrongful death claim is a statutory claim (not a common law claim) and therefore, a careful reading and understanding Maryland’s Wrongful Death Statute is necessary.