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Per Massachusetts Highest Court, Decedent’s Signature on Covenant Not to Sue Barred Wrongful Death Claim by Statutory Beneficiaries

When someone is injured by another’s breach of the duty of due care, he or she has a right to file a negligence claim seeking compensation from the responsible party for his or her personal injuries. This includes payment for medical expenses, lost earnings, pain and suffering, and other damages.

A Massachusetts wrongful death action may lie when a person is killed by another’s negligence. These suits are typically brought by the personal representative of the victim’s estate, acting on behalf of the beneficiaries enumerated under the state’s wrongful death statute, and, if successful, may result in the awarding of different elements of damages than would have been available in a personal injury lawsuit filed by the victim. The state’s highest court recently clarified the relationship between these two types of claims.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiff was the personal representative of a man who died in a scuba diving accident in 2014. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendants, the manufacturer of the decedent’s dry suit, the person who supplied the decedent’s diving equipment, and the dive leader, seeking to assert a wrongful death claim under Massachusetts General Laws ch. 229, § 2. The plaintiff settled her case against all defendants except the dive leader. Thereafter, the dive leader filed a motion for summary judgment, relying upon a release and covenant not to sue that the decedent signed prior to his death. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case from the intermediate appellate court on its own initiative.

Decision of the Court

The court affirmed the lower tribunal’s order granting summary judgment to the defendant. The court began by explaining that it had recently released an opinion in a case with similar issues and was obligated to rule in a manner consistent with the decision in that case. In both cases, the court had been called upon to determine whether, under Massachusetts law, statutory beneficiaries have an independent right to maintain a wrongful death claim, such that a decedent is unable to waive this right prior to his or her death. In both the prior case and the instant case, the court ruled that the wrongful death claims were derivative of the decedent’s claim, not independent thereto.

Wrongful death actions are based on the alleged negligence, careless, or intentional death of a family member. Had the family member been injured by the defendant’s conduct, rather than killed by it, he or she could have maintained a personal injury lawsuit against the wrongdoer. The plaintiff argued that her right to sue for her loved one’s wrongful death was a separate right, one that the decedent was unable to waive – i.e. that he could only waive his own personal injury lawsuit, not her wrongful death claim. Because the court disagreed with the plaintiff on this point, the decedent’s signing of the waiver upon which the defendant relied in support of his summary judgment motion prohibited not only any claims that he would have had for compensation for his personal injuries (had he lived) but also the plaintiff’s wrongful death claim.

Talk to a Cape Cod Negligence Lawyer

At the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III, we handle both personal injury and wrongful death claims. If you have questions about your legal rights following an accident or the loss of a loved one, call us at 888-262-6664 and ask for an appointment with one of our experienced Cape Cod injury attorneys.

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