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WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A “USE-PLAINTIFF” IN A MARYLAND WRONGFUL DEATH CASE?

Each state has its own laws governing wrongful death lawsuits. In this note, we’ll explain some key portions of Maryland’s wrongful death laws. We’ll start with how Maryland defines wrongful death and who may bring this kind of claim to court in the state. Then, we’ll talk about the damages available in a successful wrongful death case and the time limits for getting the lawsuit started in court. Finally, we’ll explain how a use-plaintiff has to “intervene” in a lawsuit filed by another firm.

Maryland wrongful death claims are intended to compensate the estate and the surviving immediate family members of a deceased person when an untimely death is caused by the negligence of another person or company.

Some wrongful death plaintiffs find it helpful to think of a wrongful death case as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own claim to court. Instead, the family members of the deceased person must file a wrongful death claim in court in order to hold the defendant accountable and get compensation for their own losses and the losses of the estate.

Maryland typically divides wrongful death claims into two categories: survival (or “estate”) actions and wrongful death actions.

Survival actions are actions brought on behalf of the estate. They compensate the estate for losses it paid–such as funeral, burial, and medical expenses–related to the death. They also compensate the estate for losses the deceased person suffered directly, such as his pain and suffering related to the final illness or injury.

Wrongful death actions are actions that do not address the injury suffered by the deceased himself. Rather, they are brought on behalf of the survivors of the deceased person: the spouse, parents, and/or children. These actions are intended to compensate the surviving family members for the losses suffered by them, not the deceased, in connection with their loved one’s untimely death, like lost wages, lost companionship and lost support.

WHO MAY FILE A MARYLAND WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM?

Maryland has very specific rules regarding who may file a wrongful death claim or a survival action. Generally speaking, whether a certain person may file a claim depends on whether they are classified as a “primary” or “secondary” beneficiary.

Primary beneficiaries include the surviving spouse, parents and children of the deceased person. If a primary beneficiary is alive, he or she may file a wrongful death claim, a survival claim, or both. If a primary beneficiary brings either of these claims, any damages awarded in the claim are awarded solely to the primary beneficiaries.

Secondary beneficiaries include the surviving siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews and other relatives. If there are no primary beneficiaries or no primary beneficiary is willing to bring either type of claim to court, a secondary beneficiary may file on behalf of both the primary and secondary beneficiaries.

Typically, the primary beneficiaries will file a wrongful death claim seeking damages for their own losses, while either a primary or secondary beneficiary will file a survival action seeking damages on behalf of the estate.

DAMAGES IN A MARYLAND WRONGFUL DEATH CASE.

In a Maryland wrongful death claim, losses are expressed in terms of money damages. The specific types and amounts of damages available depend on whether the claim brought is a survival claim or a wrongful death claim.

Damages available in a survival claim are damages suffered by the estate as a result of the untimely death. They include funeral and burial expenses, medical bills for the deceased person’s final illness or injury, property damage costs and damages for the deceased person’s pain and suffering.

Damages available in a wrongful death claim are damages suffered by the deceased person’s surviving family members as a result of the untimely death. They include lost wages and other compensation, as well as the loss of the deceased person’s care, companionship and guidance.

Maryland “caps,” or limits” non-economic damages in wrongful death claims. Non-economic damages are those that cannot be measured in terms of bills or receipts: losses like pain and suffering and loss of companionship. As of October 2014, Maryland caps non-economic damages in wrongful death cases at $2 million.

TIME LIMITS ON FILING MARYLAND WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIMS.

Maryland’s statute of limitations sets a deadline on the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit in the state. These claims must typically be filed within three years of the date of the deceased person’s death. Claims filed after this three-year deadline are typically thrown out by the court without a hearing.

One tough issue Maryland wrongful death lawyers must deal with are claims where there are wrongful death beneficiaries whose whereabouts are unknown or, for whatever reason, the potential beneficiary is unwilling to cooperate or participate.

What exactly is a use-plaintiff? It is the owner of the beneficial interest for whose benefit a lawsuit is technically being brought. In this context, it means someone who is technically a wrongful death beneficiary. Although there can be many beneficiaries in a fatality claim, Maryland’s statute allows for only one lawsuit on behalf of the beneficiaries. Assuming the person who suffered the accidental death had beneficiaries, any damages that are awarded are in proportion to the loss incurred. So if one of the beneficiaries has not, for example, seen their father in 20 years, a jury may give that person little or nothing. But, ultimately, the proceeds are split as the jury sees fit.

The problem is that logic prevails only when all of the beneficiaries are present at trial and the case goes to a jury verdict. Most wrongful death cases settle before trial. So the question becomes how can you proceed and potentially split settlement proceeds with a party that you cannot find or who is unable or unwilling to participate. What do wrongful death lawyers filing a lawsuit do when faced with this situation?

First, all statutory beneficiaries must be named as plaintiffs. If a plaintiff does not join the action, they must still be identified in the wrongful death lawsuit as a “use plaintiff.” While the lawsuit may proceed without the participation of a use-plaintiff, the lawsuit continues to protect the use-plaintiff’s interest. The key for wrongful death lawyers is to put any use-plaintiff on notice. Unless you file a motion to dismiss the use-plaintiff, their interests will continue to be protected. A use-plaintiff, such as you, must (through me as your counsel) file a motion to intervene in the lawsuit in order to protect your interests. Thereafter, our firm tries to negotiate an allocation agreement with the other beneficiaries as to how the proceeds of any settlements, if any, should be split.

Maryland Rule 15-1001 (2010) and Maryland Annotated Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings §3-904 are worth looking at in particular for this rule as well as the Maryland Court of Appeals opinion in Williams v. Work, 192 Md. App. 438 (2010) (which provides a cautionary tale for plaintiffs’ wrongful death lawyers). Note that Maryland Rule 15-1001 requires the attorney bringing the action to mail a copy of the complaint by certified mail to any use-plaintiff at the use-plaintiff’s last known address.

This does not mean that you have to find the use-plaintiff. Some people just can’t be found and the law allows for this. There are specified time limits in which a beneficiary must intervene or else he may lose his right to participate.