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Spangler v. McQuitty

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 12, 2016


          Argued: March 31, 2016

         Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-C-12-005294

          Barbera, C.J., [*] Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, JJ.


          Hotten, J.

         We consider, for the third time, the case of McQuitty v. Spangler, which we previously discussed in McQuitty v. Spangler, 410 Md. 1, 976 A.2d 1020 (2009) ("McQuitty I"), and McQuitty v. Spangler, 424 Md. 527, 36 A.3d 928 (2012) ("McQuitty II").[1] Specifically, we explore whether the definition of "wrongful act" under the Maryland wrongful death statute, Md. Code (2006, 2013 Repl. Vol.), §§ 3-901 through 3-904 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (Cts. & Jud. Proc."); specifically, § 3-901(e), precludes beneficiaries from maintaining a wrongful death action when the decedent obtained a personal injury judgment predicated on the same underlying facts during his lifetime. We also focus on whether a decedent's release of one joint tort-feasor in a personal injury action for any and all future claims in connection with the tortious conduct, also precludes the decedent's beneficiaries from pursuing a wrongful death action against all joint tort-feasors based on the same underlying facts.

         For the reasons expressed below, we hold that Maryland's wrongful death statute creates a new and independent cause of action for a decedent's beneficiaries, and thus, a judgment on the merits in a decedent's personal injury action during his or her lifetime does not bar a subsequent wrongful death action by the beneficiaries. Additionally, we hold that pursuant to the Maryland Uniform Contribution Among Tort-Feasors Act, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-1404, a release by the injured person of one joint tort-feasor, whether before or after judgment, does not discharge the other tort-feasors unless the release so provides. Thus, where the language of a release unambiguously reveals an intent to release only one joint tort-feasor, the release does not preclude a subsequent wrongful death action against other tort-feasors that were not parties to the release. We explain.


         Prior Proceedings[2]

         Respondents, Peggy and Gary McQuitty ("the McQuittys"), on behalf of their minor child, Dylan, successfully sued Ms. McQuitty's obstetrician and primary care physician, Donald Spangler ("Dr. Spangler"), along with his practice group, Glowacki, Elberfeld & Spangler, P.A. (collectively "Petitioners"), for failing to secure Ms. McQuitty's informed consent[3] for treatment. As a result, Ms. McQuitty suffered complete placental abruption, causing severe injuries to Dylan during his birth in May of 1995, and eventually, a severe condition of cerebral palsy.

         The original complaint also included co-defendants, Franklin Square Hospital, where Dylan was born, and Dr. Spangler's partner, Harrold Elberfeld ("Dr. Elberfeld"). Dr. Elberfeld and Franklin Square Hospital moved for summary judgment on liability and damages, which was subsequently granted by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County in March of 2004-on the same date Dr. Elberfeld settled with the McQuittys. Franklin Square Hospital also settled with the McQuittys prior to trial, notwithstanding the summary judgment ruling in its favor. The settlements were entered on the record and the case proceeded on the informed consent claim against Petitioners as sole defendants.

         Prior to trial, Petitioners moved for summary judgment. Dr. Spangler alleged that he did not have a duty to obtain the informed consent of Ms. McQuitty regarding a placental abruption, "because he did not conduct or propose an 'affirmative invasion of her physical integrity.'" McQuitty II 424 Md. at 532, 36 A.3d at 931 (quoting McQuitty I, 410 Md. at 13–14, 976 A.2d at 1027–28). The motion was denied, and the trial ensued. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Dylan and awarded $13, 078, 515 in damages, including $8, 442, 515 in future medical expenses. Petitioners filed a Motion for Remittitur and a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict ("JNOV"), raising the same argument in support of their motion for summary judgment. The circuit court granted Petitioners' motion for JNOV, which was affirmed by the Court of Special Appeals in an unpublished opinion.

         In McQuitty I, 410 Md. at 33, 976 A.2d at 1039, this Court reversed the grant of the JNOV, and remanded with instructions that the circuit court consider Petitioners' unresolved Motion for Remittitur. On September 26, 2009, prior to the resolution of the remittitur, Dylan died and the McQuittys were named as personal representatives of the Estate. Thereafter, Petitioners filed various post-trial motions, seeking a new trial or a reduction in the award for future medical expenses, alleging, inter alia, that Dylan's death was a "significant event" that affected the equities of the case.

         The circuit court denied Petitioners' motion to revise the judgment, but denied in part and granted in part Petitioners' Motion for Remittitur. As a result, the court reduced the initial jury award, pursuant to the statutory cap on non-economic damages of $500, 000 under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11–108(b)(2)(i), and also reduced the judgment by fifty percent to reflect Dr. Elberfeld's pro rata share of liability, as a result of the joint tort-feasor release from the McQuittys, in compliance with the Uniform Contribution Among Tort–Feasors Act, under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–1404.

         The circuit court also denied Petitioners' requests to permit the periodic payment of future economic damages under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11–109(c), which would have reduced the jury's award by the Franklin Square Hospital's settlement amount. The court ultimately reduced the judgment to $5, 039, 257.50, plus post-judgment interest calculated from the date of the entry of judgment, on September 27, 2006, plus costs. Petitioners subsequently filed a renewed motion for a new trial and a motion to alter, amend, or revise the judgment, which were both denied. Thereafter, Petitioners noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, but this Court granted certiorari, prior to that proceeding. In McQuitty II, 424 Md. at 529-30, 36 A.3d at 929-30, we affirmed the circuit court's judgment. Subsequently, on March 23, 2012, Petitioners satisfied the judgment.

         Respondents' Wrongful Death Action

         On May 17, 2012, Respondents filed a wrongful death action against Petitioners, under the Maryland wrongful death statute, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901 et seq., to recover damages based upon the same underlying facts in the personal injury action regarding Dr. Spangler's failure to obtain informed consent. On August 1, 2012, Petitioners filed a Motion to Dismiss Respondents' action. Following a December 6, 2012 hearing, the motion was granted. The circuit court concluded that Respondents' wrongful death action was precluded by the judgment in Dylan's favor "because Dylan no longer had a right to bring another claim against [ ] [Petitioners] at the time of his death." Subsequently, on January 4, 2013, Respondents appealed the judgment.

         While the matter was pending before the Court of Special Appeals, this Court issued its opinion in Mummert v. Alizadeh, 435 Md. 207, 77 A.3d 1049 (2013), which concerned similar issues to those presented here regarding the definition of "wrongful act" under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e). In Mummert, the decedent's husband and three children brought a wrongful death action against the decedent's physician, based on a failure to timely diagnose the decedent's colorectal cancer. Id. at 210-11, 77 A.3d at 1051. The physician filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful death action because the statutory three-year period in the wrongful death statute had expired relative to the decedent's personal injury action prior to her death. Id. The motion was subsequently granted. Id. at 211, 77 A.3d at 1052.

         Accordingly, the narrow question before this Court in Mummert was whether the decedent's failure to file a personal injury claim in her lifetime within the limitations period, precluded her wrongful death beneficiaries from filing a wrongful death action based upon the same negligent act after her death. Id. at 212, 77 A.3d at 1051-52. In reversing the circuit court's dismissal of the action, we held that, in enacting the wrongful death statute, the General Assembly "did not intend to define 'wrongful act' so as to render a wrongful death claim contingent on the decedent's ability to file timely a tort claim prior to death." Id. at 210, 77 A.3d at 1051. We also held that the "statute of limitations for bringing tort claims against health care providers in instances of alleged medical negligence does not apply to a claim for wrongful death." Id.

         In so holding, we reaffirmed the independent nature of wrongful death actions established in Stewart v. United Elec. Light & Power Co., 104 Md. 332, 65 A. 49, 53 (1906), which provided that a wrongful death action was enacted to allow surviving relatives and beneficiaries "who [were] wholly dependent on the decedent, to recover damages for his or her own loss accruing from the decedent's death." Mummert, at 219-20, 77 A.3d at 1056.

         We also observed that a wrongful death action, was, in some respects, derivative of a decedent's personal injury claim, and thus, where certain defenses would bar a decedent's claim, they would similarly bar a wrongful death action brought by the decedent's surviving relatives. Id. at 222, 77 A.3d at 1057. We noted that the defenses which generally bar subsequent actions, such as contributory negligence, assumption of the risk, parental immunity, and lack of privity of contract, were distinguishable from the statute of limitations at issue, because where the former defenses applied, "the decedent did not have a viable claim from the outset." Id. 221, 77 A.3d at 1057 (emphasis added). We opined that the limitations defense barred an otherwise viable claim of the decedent, only due to a lapse of time, which made barring a wrongful death action under those grounds illogical since the action would be "time-barred before it can accrue." Id. at 226-28, 77 A.3d at 1060-61.

         We also distinguished cases in which a wrongful death action was barred by a decedent's release of his negligence action. Citing with approval the holding in State, ex rel. Melitch v. United Rys. & Electric Co. of Baltimore, 121 Md. 457, 88 A. 229 (1913), we held that a release is distinguishable because "a decedent who executes a release has acted affirmatively and purposefully to extinguish the underlying claim." Mummert, at 221-22, 77 A.3d at 1057. We reasoned that in a statute of limitations defense, "there may be no evidence necessarily that the decedent intended to allow the statute of limitations to run[.]" Id.

         Petitioners, thereafter, relied on Mummert in their brief to the Court of Special Appeals, asserting that the narrow holding regarding the limitations defense, did not preclude their res judicata defense that Dylan's pursuit of a judgment during his lifetime extinguished Respondents' wrongful death action under the express provisions in the wrongful death statute. On November 21, 2013, the Court of Special Appeals directed the parties to file memoranda addressing the application of Mummert. In those filings, both parties disputed whether Mummert was dispositive of the matter before us.

         Court of Special Appeals Opinion[4]

         In the unreported opinion filed on August 7, 2015, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the circuit court's judgment granting Petitioners' Motion to Dismiss Respondents' wrongful death action; remanded the case for further proceedings; and held that that Respondents' wrongful death action was not barred by a judgment in Dylan's personal injury action. McQuitty v. Spangler, No. 2375 Sept. Term 2012, 2015 WL 5822059 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Aug. 7, 2015). The Court concluded that both parties overstated the impact of its holding on the circumstances presented. The Court reasoned:

First, Mummert does not mandate a holding in favor of [Respondents]. The Mummert Court held that not all defenses to a decedent's personal injury claim would bar a subsequent wrongful death action, but did not hold that every such defense lost its preclusive effect. The only defense vis-a-vis the decedent's claim that Mummert expressly removed from the arsenal of the wrongful death defendant is the expiration of the limitations period in the decedent's personal injury claim. The Court restricted its holding to the facts before it, and made no specific comment on which other defenses, if any, may no longer preclude subsequent wrongful death actions.
The fact that some defenses vis-a-vis a decedent's claim maintain their preclusive effect after Mummert, however, does not compel a holding for [Petitioners]. Instead, Mummert raises the following question relevant to the matter sub judice: Is a judgment in favor of the decedent in his personal injury action similar to the defenses that Mummert upheld, namely, defenses barring such personal injury action from the outset? In answering that question, we are unpersuaded by [Petitioners] analogy of a pre-existing judgment in favor of Dylan to the defenses upheld in Mummert, and conclude instead that the rationale expressed by the Court of Appeals in that case supports a holding in favor of [Respondents].

McQuitty, 2015 WL 5822059, at *7 (internal citations omitted) (emphasis in original).

         On that premise, the Court also concluded that a successful judgment in favor of a decedent in a personal injury action was distinguishable from the defenses recognized in Mummert, as barring a subsequent wrongful death action. The Court stated:

A judgment in Dylan's favor on his personal injury claim is not a bar to that claim-it is the ultimate validation of the claim. The preclusive effect of such judgment flows from the principles of res judicata. Here, res judicata does not bar [Respondents'] wrongful death action, because res judicata only applies to actions between the same plaintiffs and defendants.

Id. at *7-8. As a result, the Court rejected Petitioners' argument that Dylan's "affirmative and purposeful conduct" in pursuing a judgment against them barred Respondents' wrongful death action, and reasoned that Dylan's pursuit of his claim was not a release or settlement. See id. The Court also disagreed with Petitioners contention that permitting the wrongful death action would result in double recovery. See id. at *8. The Court opined that the potential for overlapping damages should not "absolutely bar" subsequent wrongful death actions, because any overlap could be resolved on a case-by-case, damages-by-damages basis in the circuit court. Id. at *9. The Court, nonetheless, concluded that the risks associated with a double recovery did not exist in the case at bar:

Although Dylan recovered damages for the loss of future earnings, [Respondents] cannot recover damages for those earnings in a wrongful death action, because '[p]arents may recover a pecuniary value for the loss of an employed deceased minor child's future earnings, at least to the date the deceased would have become an adult, had he/she lived.'

Id. at *10 (citations omitted). In support of this conclusion, the Court observed that Dylan was not employed at the time of his death, and that the only other damages recoverable by Respondents in their wrongful death action were solatium damages, [5] which were personal to them and not recoverable by Dylan. See id. We, thereafter, granted certiorari.


         When this Court reviews a circuit court's grant of a motion to dismiss, we "must assume the truth of, and view in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, all well-pleaded facts and allegations contained in the complaint, as well as all inferences that may reasonably be drawn [therefrom.]" McHale v. DCW Dutchship Island, LLC, 415 Md. 145, 155, 999 A.2d 969, 975 (2010) (quoting RRC Northeast, LLC v. BAA Md., Inc., 413 Md. 638, 643, 994 A.2d 430, 433 (2010)). We analyze the circuit court's decision to determine whether it was legally correct, and "order dismissal only if the allegations and permissible inferences, if true, would not afford relief to the plaintiff, i.e., the allegations do not state a cause of action for which relief may be granted." McHale, 415 Md. at 155, 999 A.2d at 975 (quoting RRC Northeast, 413 Md. at 643, 994 A.2d at 433).


         I. Relevant provisions of Maryland's current wrongful death statute

         Maryland's wrongful death statute allows the maintenance of an action "against a person whose wrongful act causes the death of another." Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–902(a). "Wrongful act" is defined as "an act, neglect, or default including a felonious act which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued." Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–901(e). The primary beneficiaries of a wrongful death action are the spouse, parent, and child of the decedent. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3– 904(a)(1). However, relatives by blood or marriage who substantially relied upon the decedent, are also eligible claimants. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-904(b). Where the decedent is a spouse, minor child, parent of a minor child, or an unmarried child that is not a minor, the wrongful death statute provides damages for "pecuniary losses, " if any, in addition to damages for "mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, companionship, comfort, protection, marital care, parental care, filial care, attention, advice, counsel, training, guidance, or education where applicable. . . ." Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–904(c)-(d).

         II. Maryland's wrongful death statute creates a new and independent cause of action for a decedent's beneficiaries

         The determinative issue in the case at bar is whether, under the definition of "wrongful act" in Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e), a wrongful death action is derivative, or independent of, a decedent's prior personal injury claim, where the decedent obtained a judgment based on the same underlying facts. Thus, a resolution requires this Court to revisit the interpretation of the language contained in Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e), which provides:

'Wrongful act' means an act, neglect, or default including a felonious act which would have entitled the party injured to maintain an action and recover damages if death had not ensued.

         Petitioners argue that Respondents' wrongful death action is derivative of Dylan's personal injury action and therefore, barred by res judicata, since Dylan would not be entitled to a double recovery if death had not ensued. Conversely, Respondents allege that their wrongful death action is a new and independent cause of action, only subject to the condition that Dylan possessed a viable claim at the outset, and therefore, not subject to a res judicata defense.

         We hold that the Maryland wrongful death statute provides a new and independent cause of action, which does not preclude a subsequent action brought by a decedent's beneficiaries, although the decedent obtained a personal injury judgment based essentially on the same underlying facts during his or her lifetime. The parties' arguments focus primarily on the definition of "wrongful act, " specifically the phrase, "if death had not ensued." To discern the meaning of this phrase, we apply the long-standing canons of statutory interpretation.

         "'The cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the [General Assembly].'" Rosemann v. Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins, LLC, 412 Md. 308, 314, 987 A.2d 48, 52 (2010) (citation omitted). "'Statutory construction begins with the plain language of the statute, and ordinary, popular understanding of the English language.'" Id. at 314-15, 987 A.2d at 52 (citations omitted). We, therefore, "'[n]either add nor delete language so as to reflect an intent not evidenced in the plain language of the statute; nor [do we] construe the statute with forced or subtle interpretations that limit or extend its application.'" Id. at 315, 987 A.2d at 52 (citations omitted).

         Moreover, this Court "reads the statute as a whole to ensure that none of its provisions are rendered meaningless[, ] and [ ] will not construe a statute to reach a result 'that is unreasonable, illogical, or inconsistent with common sense.'" Id. (citations omitted). "If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, we need look no further than the language of the statute to ascertain the [General Assembly's] intent." Id. (citation omitted). However, "[w]hen the language of the statute is subject to more than one interpretation, it is ambiguous and we usually look beyond the statutory language to the statute's legislative history, prior case law, the statutory purpose, and the statutory structure as aids in ascertaining the [General Assembly's] intent." Id. (citations omitted). Under these circumstances, "we also consider the consequences resulting from one meaning rather than another, and adopt that construction which avoids an illogical or unreasonable result, or one which is inconsistent with common sense." Id. at 315, 987 A.2d at 52-53 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         We also note an additional consideration that is relevant to the issues presented- that "[s]tatutes in derogation of the common law are strictly construed, and it is not to be presumed that the [General Assembly] by creating statutory assaults intended to make any alteration in the common law other than what has been specified and plainly pronounced." Cosby v. Dep't of Human Res., 425 Md. 629, 645, 42 A.3d 596, 606 (2012) (citations omitted).

         A. Interpreting Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e) of the Maryland wrongful death statute

         Without extensive discussion, we acknowledge here, as in Mummert, 435 Md. at 218, 77 A.3d at 1055, that when read within the context of the statutory scheme, the language of Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e) is ambiguous because a plain reading of the statute could lead to more than one interpretation. See, e.g., Mummert, 435 Md. at 218, 77 A.3d at 1055 (noting that the parties' "dueling interpretations" regarding the plain meaning of § 3-901(e), "serve quintessentially to highlight the ambiguity in the statute's language[]") (citing Reier v. State Dep't of Assessments & Taxation, 397 Md. 2, 26-27, 915 A.2d 970, 985 (2007)) ("It strikes us that the competing parties' argument present 'two . . . reasonable alternative interpretations of the statute, ' making the statute ambiguous.") (citation omitted).

         This ambiguity is reflected in the parties' arguments. Petitioner contends that the definition of a wrongful act, specifically as it pertains to the phrase "if death had not ensued[, ]" leads to a conclusion that "a settlement and/or judgment in a personal injury matter in one's lifetime" bars subsequent pursuit of a wrongful death claim.

         Respondents disagree, see supra, and on related grounds, aver that "[b]ecause Dylan had a viable claim from the outset, " Petitioners' interpretation of the statute "would lead to illogical and absurd results." Specifically, Respondents assert that "if Dylan had died before the entry of judgment in his favor on September 29, 2006, " their wrongful death action "could have proceeded without the bar of res judicata." In Respondents' view, an argument that "Dylan lived to see his personal injury claims vindicated by a jury forfeited [their] right to recover their own separate and distinct damages arising from his death[, ] leads to an outcome that is "entirely inconsistent with the purpose of the [w]rongful [d]eath statute." We, therefore, look beyond the statutory language of Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-901(e) to other sources in ascertaining legislative intent.

         i. Legislative History

         In 1852, Maryland enacted the wrongful death statute to remedy the common law's unaccommodating treatment of a tort victim's family. See Mummert, 435 Md. at 214-15, 77 A.2d at 1053; Walker v. Essex, 318 Md. 516, 569 A.2d 645, 648 (1990). Previously, common law denied tort recovery for injury once the tort victim had died and any new and independent cause of action by the victim's beneficiaries were not recognized. Mummert, 435 Md. at 214-15, 77 A.2d at 1053; W. Page Keaton, Prosser and Keaton on Torts, ยง 127, at 945 (5th ed. 1984). The ...

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