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Parker v. Hamilton

Court of Appeals of Maryland

May 22, 2017

CASSANDRA PARKER, ET AL.
v.
WILLIAM HAMILTON, ET AL.

          Argued: February 2, 2017

         Circuit Court for Dorchester County Case No. C15-022407

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Rodowsky, Lawrence F. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.

          OPINION

          Hotten, J.

         On June 9, 2015, Appellant Cassandra Parker (acting individually and as the Personal Representative of the Estate of her son, Craig Junior Parker), and her grandchild, Appellant Z. (Mr. Parker's son, who, by that time was five years old), filed survival and wrongful death actions against Appellee William Stevens Hamilton, arising out of the death of Craig Junior Parker. The wrongful death claims were dismissed by the circuit court as time-barred under Maryland Code, § 3-904 of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article ("Cts. & Jud. Proc.").[1] Whether the claims were timely depends on the applicability of two provisions-Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-201, [2] which provides that the time period for bringing a wrongful death action that accrues in favor of a minor plaintiff is tolled during the period of minority, and Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-203, which reads:

If the knowledge of a cause of action is kept from a party by the fraud of an adverse party, the cause of action shall be deemed to accrue at the time when the party discovered, or by the exercise of ordinary diligence should have discovered the fraud.

         We shall hold that both provisions apply. Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-201 operates to toll a minor plaintiff's wrongful death claims during the period of his or her minority. Thus, the circuit court erred in dismissing the minor Appellant's wrongful death claims as untimely. Furthermore, the circuit court erred in failing to consider that the time limitation to file a wrongful death action is tolled when the defendant engages in fraudulent conduct that prevents the plaintiffs from bringing a wrongful death action within three years from the date of death, pursuant to Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-203. Appellants' amended complaint sufficiently pled fraud in order to invoke Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-203.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are alleged in Appellants' Amended Complaint.

         On or about August 22, 2009, Mr. Hamilton shot and killed Mr. Parker. At the time, Mr. Parker was thirty-eight years old, and worked as a farmhand for Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Parker was survived by his mother, Cassandra Parker and his son, Z., born on November 17, 2009-Appellants in this matter. Appellants allege that Mr. Hamilton buried Mr. Parker's remains in order to conceal his wrongdoing.

         On June 9, 2015, Cassandra Parker (acting individually and as the Personal Representative of the Estate of her son, Mr. Parker) and her minor grandchild, Z. (Mr. Parker's son), filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Dorchester County against Mr. Hamilton arising out of the wrongful death of Mr. Parker. Appellants thereafter filed an amended complaint in which they added William Vogel, Jr.[3] as a defendant. The amended complaint included counts of: (1) wrongful death based on negligence, (2) a survival action based on negligence, (3) wrongful death based on gross negligence, (4) a survival action based on gross negligence, (5) wrongful death based on battery, (6) a survival action based on battery, and (7) fraudulent conveyance.

         Mr. Hamilton filed a motion to dismiss with prejudice, or in the alternative, motion for summary judgment. The circuit court held a motions hearing, after which it issued a written opinion granting the motion to dismiss as to the wrongful death claims, and denying the motion as to the survival claims of Mr. Parker's estate.

         Appellants filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied without a hearing. Appellants filed a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. This Court granted certiorari before the Court of Special Appeals' consideration of the direct appeal. Parker v. Hamilton, 450 Md. 664, 150 A.3d 819 (2016). Appellants' brief[4] presents three questions for review:

I. Did the trial court improperly ignore Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-201 when it determined that the wrongful death claims of the minor plaintiff were not tolled until the age of majority?
II. Does the trial court's decision that the minor plaintiff's wrongful death claims were not tolled during his minority violate Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights?
III. Did the trial court err when it determined that the defendant's fraudulent concealment of a murder failed to toll the plaintiffs' wrongful death claims under Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. [Proc.] § 5-203?

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The parties contest the appropriate standard of review. Mr. Hamilton argues that the circuit court granted a motion to dismiss, not a motion for summary judgment-and therefore, this Court should not consider evidence outside of the pleadings. In response, Appellants argue that while the circuit court's order was not clear as to whether it granted a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment, the circuit court referred throughout the opinion to evidence and testimony received at the motions hearing, which was beyond the four corners of the complaint. Appellants assert that by considering evidence outside of the scope of the pleadings in rendering its ruling, the motion to dismiss was converted to one for summary judgment pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-322(c). During oral argument before this Court, counsel for Mr. Hamilton contended that the circuit court conducted a discrete review of the wrongful death actions, as a motion to dismiss, and only considered evidence outside of the pleadings as it pertained to the remaining causes of action.

         In the section of the circuit court's opinion entitled "Wrongful Death Claims- Condition Precedent[, ]" the circuit court concluded, "Because the Complaint was not filed until June 9, 2014, long after the three-year time deadline of August 22, 2012, the wrongful death claims, Counts 1, 3, and 5, must be dismissed." The dismissal of the wrongful death claims was grounded in (1) the application of the time limitation in the wrongful death statute as a condition precedent and (2) the rejection of Appellants' argument regarding the retroactivity of Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3-904(g), which creates an exception to the condition for wrongful death actions based on criminal homicides. Based on these grounds for dismissal, we determine the review of the wrongful death causes of action was limited to the pleadings.

         We have outlined the applicable standard of review pertaining to dismissals for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as follows:

In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-322(b)(2), a trial court must assume the truth of all well-pleaded relevant and material facts in the complaint, as well as all inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom. Stone v. Chicago Title Ins. Co., 330 Md. 329, 333, 624 A.2d 496, 498 (1993); Odyniec v. Schneider, 322 Md. 520, 525, 588 A.2d 786, 788 (1991). To this end, the facts comprising the cause of action must be pleaded with sufficient specificity. Bald assertions and conclusory statements by the pleader will not suffice. [Cont'l] Masonry Co. v. Verdel Constr. Co., 279 Md. 476, 481, 369 A.2d 566, 569 (1977). Further, while the words of a pleading will be given reasonable construction, when a pleading is doubtful and ambiguous, it will be construed most strongly against the pleader in determining its sufficiency. Hixon v. Buchberger, 306 Md. 72, 75, 507 A.2d 607, 608 (1986); Read Drug & Chem. Co. v. Colwill Constr. Co., 250 Md. 406, 416, 243 A.2d 548, 555 (1968). Dismissal is proper only if the alleged facts and permissible inferences, so viewed, would, if proven, nonetheless fail to afford relief to the plaintiff. Morris v. Osmose Wood Preserving, 340 Md. 519, 531, 667 A.2d 624, 630 (1995). On appeal, a reviewing court must determine whether the trial court was legally correct, examining solely the sufficiency of the pleading.

Bobo v. State, 346 Md. 706, 708-09, 697 A.2d 1371, 1372-73 (1997).

         III. ...


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