When a victim dies due to negligence, the law generally affords those left behind the right to sue by way of two distinct statutory options: wrongful death claims and survival actions.
A wrongful death claim is a statutory claim brought by the relatives of the victim against the person or entity who negligently caused the victim’s death. In a wrongful death claim, damages are generally measured by the harm caused to the family members who suffer the loss of the victim. Notably, this cause of action only allows compensation where the survivors can show that the victim would not have died, but for negligence.
Conversely, in a survival action, the deceased’s estate seeks compensation for the injuries suffered by the deceased victim prior to their death. Survival actions are brought by the personal representative for the estate of the deceased. Generally, survival actions permit compensation to the victim’s estate for the conscious pain and suffering suffered by the victim, endured up to the moment of the victim’s death, as well as other damages, such as medical expenses incurred by the victim prior to death.
Unlike wrongful death claims, in a survival action, it is not necessary for the estate to prove that the victim’s death was caused by negligence. Rather, the estate must prove that negligence resulted in harm to the victim while they were still alive.
Recently, in the matter of Wadsworth v. Sharma, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court held that a doctor’s failure to diagnose Stephanie Wadsworth’s incurable terminal cancer was not the cause of her death. Consequently, her family could not recover damages for the shortening of her life.
In 2006, Mrs. Wadsworth was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She quickly underwent a mastectomy followed by radiation therapy. During the next seven years, Mrs. Wadsworth’s treating oncologist, Dr. Sharma, believed she was in remission as her periodic PET/CT scans returned negative for cancer.
However, a diagnostic scan was ordered in April 2013, and a radiologist allegedly observed a cancerous lesion not detected on prior imaging studies. It would ultimately become an undisputed fact that the lesion appearing on the April 2013 scan was representative of incurable and terminal metastatic cancer.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Wadsworth did not become aware of the resurging cancer until several years later.
In February 2016, Mrs. Wadsworth suffered an accidental fall, injuring her right shoulder, and sought medical treatment in a hospital. In assessing her shoulder injury, the hospital performed a diagnostic bone scan on her clavicle and the scan revealed a lesion. Soon thereafter, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she died in June of the following year.
The aggrieved family members filed a combined wrongful death and survival action against the treating oncologist, alleging that Mrs. Wadsworth’s life had been shortened because of the missed diagnosis. Specifically, the family argued that had Mrs. Wadsworth received the proper diagnosis in April 2013, she would have received more aggressive treatments and would have lived approximately 30 months longer.
The oncologist argued that Mrs. Wadsworth’s cancer was incurable and terminal by April 2013. Therefore, Mrs. Wadworth’s death was not caused by a missed or incorrect diagnosis. In short, she would have nevertheless rapidly died from the aggressive cancer regardless of whether she had received a timelier diagnosis.
While Mrs. Wadsworth’s surviving family members argued that they should be able to recover for her shortened life expectancy as part of a wrongful death claim, Maryland’s intermediate appellate court plainly rejected this notion. The court held that Maryland’s wrongful death statute is strictly construed to provide that an action for wrongful death may only “be maintained against a person whose wrongful act causes the death of another.”
The court reasoned that the alleged failure of Mrs. Wadsworth’s doctor to diagnose her terminal illness did not cause her death. Rather, any such missed diagnosis would have only served to shorten Mrs. Wadsworth’s life. Thus, the court concluded, a timelier diagnosis would not have resulted in Mrs. Wadsworth’s survival.
Further elaborating, the court reasoned that Maryland’s wrongful death statute has been codified to reflect Maryland’s common law, which has historically held that in a wrongful death claim, “death is the only injury for which a Plaintiff may sue.” Therefore, the court indicated, “[t]he relatives of Mrs. Wadsworth were not entitled to recover solatium type damages, or any other type of damages because they were deprived of the decedent’s company, love and affection for 30 months.”
Finally, the court said its decision would not necessarily preclude a survival claim by Mrs. Wadsworth’s estate. The court noted that Mrs. Wadsworth’s estate could potentially pursue a recovery for Mrs. Wadsworth’s shortened life expectancy, as part of a survival claim, if the estate could prove that Stephanie knew of her shortened life expectancy and suffered mental or physical anguish because of it prior to her death.
In its analysis of Maryland’s wrongful death law, the court noted that as everyone ultimately dies, every claim for wrongful death is essentially ,at its core, a claim for shortened life expectancy. In other words, death is the ultimate shortening of life expectancy. However, in this case, the wrongful death claim was not barred because eventually everyone will die. It was barred because the family could not prove that Dr. Sharma caused the death of Mrs. Wadsworth.
Justin P. Katz
410-576-4102 • email@example.com