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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Answers Federal Appeals Court’s Question About State Wrongful Death Statute

More and more often, defendants in Cape Cod wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits are attempting to circumvent the traditional litigation process in cases charging them with negligent or reckless conduct. Of course, this tactic is more common in certain scenarios than in others. For example, in nursing home negligence cases, defendant care facilities often rely on clauses agreeing to arbitration – usually signed along with other paperwork when the patient was admitted to the nursing home – in their quest to avoid the courthouse. A recent case addressed the question of whether or not such an agreement was enforceable against the wrongful death beneficiaries of a deceased patient on whose behalf such an agreement had been signed.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently ruled upon by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the plaintiff was the personal representative of her mother’s estate. Prior to her mother’s admission into the defendant nursing home, the plaintiff signed an arbitration agreement on her mother’s behalf (the plaintiff had power of attorney for the mother). After the mother passed away in 2013 due to the defendant’s alleged negligence, the plaintiff filed a wrongful death lawsuit in state court against the defendant, seeking monetary compensation for her mother’s death. The defendant insisted that the Federal Arbitration Act barred the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

The defendant filed suit in federal court. On appeal from a federal district court’s order compelling arbitration, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit certified two questions to the state’s highest court pursuant to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rule 1:03. One of those questions pertained to whether the Massachusetts wrongful death statute, which was codified at Massachusetts General Laws ch. 229, § 2, provided rights to statutory beneficiaries’ derivative of, or independent from, what would have been the decedent’s own cause of action.

The Massachusetts Judicial Court’s Decision

The state court concluded that the claims of statutory beneficiaries under ch. 229, § 2, were derivative of a decedent’s own cause of action and that, hence, the arbitration agreement signed by the plaintiff on her mother’s behalf bound the beneficiaries of any wrongful death claim brought on the mother’s behalf, including the plaintiff herself. Applying this ruling to the facts at hand, the court concluded that the arbitration agreement bound the plaintiff, as the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate, to arbitrate, rather than litigate, her wrongful death action on behalf of her mother’s statutory beneficiaries, and that, thus, the lower federal court had been correct in compelling arbitration of the plaintiff’s claim.

The court relied upon both the plain reading of the relevant statute and its previous interpretations of common-law wrongful death actions to arrive at its ruling that a wrongful death statutory beneficiary claim was derivative of the decedent’s action and that, in the instant action, the arbitration clause relied upon by the defendant was enforceable.

Talk to a Wrongful Death Lawyer

The first step is seeking fair compensation in a personal injury or wrongful death case is talking to an attorney who can explain your legal rights and help you investigate the facts giving rise to your claim. To schedule a free consultation with an experienced Massachusetts wrongful death attorney, call the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III, at 888-262-6664 and ask for an appointment. We will be glad to go over the details of your case with you and advise you of the steps necessary to move forward with your claim.