It is often said that when a party files a lawsuit, he or she is not entitled to more than one “bite at the apple”. Indeed, in most cases, aggrieved parties are precluded from bringing multiple rounds of litigation against the same person for claims arising out of the same incident. However, a recent Maryland appellate decision, Spangler v. McQuitty, may give injured parties more than one proverbial “bite at the apple”.
A. The Facts
In Spangler v. McQuitty, the parents of Dylan McQuitty filed a personal injury lawsuit on behalf of their minor son, who was born with cerebral palsy and injuries. The lawsuit was filed against the delivery doctor, his partners, their practice group and their associated medical facility. Specifically, the McQuitty’s lawsuit alleged that the medical providers failed to obtain informed consent for the treatments rendered to the mother during the birthing process, and that this failure ultimately resulted in a placental abruption that caused Dylan’s injuries.
Prior to a trial on the matter, the McQuitty family reached a settlement with the medical facility, and the claims against the doctor’s partners were dismissed. A trial proceeded against the delivery doctor and his practice group. The jury found in favor of the McQuitty family, and Dylan was ultimately awarded a verdict of just over thirteen million dollars. Various post-trial motions ensued, and the verdict was ultimately reduced to about five million dollars. Those health care providers who were adjudged liable subsequently paid the five million dollars.
Unfortunately, during the litigation of Dylan’s injury claim, Dylan McQuitty passed away. Sometime after Dylan’s passing, and shortly after the five million dollar judgment was paid, Dylan’s family filed an additional lawsuit against the same doctors who had been deemed liable by the jury. Instead of suing to recover personal injuries Dylan suffered during Dylan’s life, the new lawsuit alleged that Dylan’s wrongful death was caused by the health care providers’ negligence.
The manner of alleged negligence described in the second complaint was exactly the same, if not similar to how it had been described in the former personal injury action. Indeed, the only major difference between the second lawsuit and the former was that the family now sought additional damages for Dylan’s untimely death.
The health care providers moved to dismiss the wrongful death action, arguing that Dylan’s family should be precluded from asserting this new cause of action, because they had already received a judgment in the personal injury lawsuit. The providers further argued that all of the issues had already been fully and fairly litigated on the merits. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case, but Dylan’s family appealed.
B. The Holding
In rendering its decision, Maryland’s highest appellate court carefully discussed the wording of Maryland’s wrongful death statute. The court determined that the language of the statute created a new cause of action for death claims, independent of those that may exist from a personal injury cause of action. Thus, the court held that the wrongful death action should be permitted.
The court reasoned that (1) the wrongful death statute provided new categories of damages that result from the death of a family member; (2) these new additional damages can only result after a death; (3) parties cannot know during a personal injury case when or whether an injured party may die; and (4) there is nothing in the legislative history of the wrongful death statute indicating a legislative intent to preclude a second case.
The court’s opinion does acknowledge that there is a split among the states as to whether wrongful death claims can be effectively divorced from the personal injury claims from which they arise. In Maryland, however, this holding has clear implications for victims of personal injuries who later die from those injuries.
For such victims and their families, the court’s interpretation of the Maryland statute gives them the choice of filing a personal injury action, or a wrongful death action, or both. Providers of health care, on the other hand, should be aware of the possibility of multiple lawsuits arising out of the same transaction or occurrence, particularly as they engage in pre-trial negotiations and negotiate settlement agreements.