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Massachusetts Appellate Court Affirms Dismissal of Wrongful Death Lawsuit Due to Lack of Duty on Homeowners

The first question that must be answered in any Cape Cod wrongful death or personal injury lawsuit is, “Did the defendant owe a duty of care to the plaintiff?” The answer to this inquiry can be impacted by state statutes, existing case law, local ordinances, the particular facts of the case, the relationship between the parties, and various other matters.

If the defendant did owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, the next step is to determine whether the duty was breached. If it was, then the issue turns to the question of causation and, then, damages. Only if the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, breached that duty, and thereby proximately caused legal damages to him or her may the case be resolved in the plaintiff’s favor.

If the answer to the duty question is “no,” the case ends there – unless the trial court’s judgment is appealed, of course. Then, a higher court may take a look at the case to determine whether a mistake was made in the lower tribunal. Only if the appealing party can convince the appellate court that a reversible error was made will there be a reversal of the lower court’s decision and a reinstatement of the plaintiff’s complaint.

Facts of the Case

In a recent  unreported appellate court case, the plaintiff was the mother of (and the personal representative of the estate of) a three-year-old child who drowned in a pond about half a mile from the defendants’ home. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, the child was “in the custody of” and “a guest of” the defendants at the time of her death. The plaintiff filed a wrongful death action, asserting that the defendants had acted negligently in allowing the child to roam outside of their home with their intellectually challenged son. Apparently, the child and the defendant’s son had wandered through the woods to a neighbor’s pond, and the child had attempted to swim but was unable to do so. Notably, the son had not tried to stop her from going into the water.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, and the trial court granted the motion. The plaintiff appealed.

The Court of Appeals’ Decision

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order, beginning its analysis by acknowledging that the issue of whether a duty of care existed in a certain situation was a question of law appropriate for a motion to dismiss. In order to survive a motion to dismiss based on a lack of duty, the plaintiff’s complaint had to contain factual allegations sufficient to plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief.

The court also noted that, generally, there is no legal duty to prevent the harmful consequences of a condition or situation which a defendant did not create; under Massachusetts law, social hosts are only liable in situations in which there was a recognized legal basis requiring the protection of a guest or in which there was a special relationship between the homeowner and the person who was injured or who died.

Although the plaintiff insisted that special relationship had existed here, the court of appeals rejected this contention, stating that “custody” required more than just a child’s presence in another’s home. Without more proof of the defendants’ alleged custody of the child, there was no affirmative duty on the defendants to protect the child from hazards located off of their property.

For Assistance in Filing a Cape Cod Wrongful Death Claim

If you have suffered the tragic loss of a family member due to another’s negligent or reckless conduct, you should talk to an attorney about the procedure of filing a claim seeking compensation for your loved one’s wrongful death. At the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III, we handle both personal injury and wrongful death cases in Hyannis, Plymouth, and elsewhere in Cape Cod. For a free consultation about your case, call us now at 888-262-6664. Please be mindful that there is a statute of limitations that limits the time for filing wrongful death claims, so please do not delay in speaking to legal counsel about your situation.

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