In Maryland Medical Malpractice Litigation, a Wrongful Death Claim Must Include All Possible Beneficiaries

When an instance of medical malpractice results in the death of a patient, that patient’s relatives may be able to recover damages by bringing a lawsuit for wrongful death. Unlike a criminal prosecution for murder or manslaughter, a wrongful death suit is a civil claim based on the legal theory of negligence. A plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of evidence that the defendant breached a professional standard of care during treatment of the patient, and that this breach caused the patient’s death. In Maryland, wrongful death claims are only available in various circumstances to the spouses, children, and parents of decedents, who are described as “beneficiaries” of such a claim. Maryland law requires that a plaintiff include all possible beneficiaries as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, even if they do not want to participate in the lawsuit or the plaintiff cannot locate them. A failure to fulfill this obligation can result in dismissal of a lawsuit.

Maryland’s Courts and General Proceedings Code identifies the spouse, child, and parent of a decedent as “primary beneficiaries” of a wrongful death claim. Family members who have been convicted of certain criminal offenses are prohibited from being beneficiaries. For example, a person who would otherwise be a beneficiary may be precluded from making a wrongful death claim if they have been found legally responsible for the decedent’s death. In the event that the decedent had no relatives who would qualify as primary beneficiaries, any person related by blood or marriage who was “substantially dependent” on the decedent may qualify as a “secondary beneficiary.” The division of damages among beneficiaries depends on their relationship to the decedent and the extent of their dependence on the decedent for care and support.

Any qualified beneficiary may bring a lawsuit for wrongful death, subject to various timeframes and notice requirements established by Maryland law. According to Maryland Rule 15-1001, a beneficiary who files a lawsuit must name all beneficiaries who could bring a claim as plaintiffs. The complaint must identify each beneficiary by name, state their relationship to the decedent, and provide their last known address. The plaintiff must certify to the court that they made “a good faith and reasonably diligent effort” to find all possible beneficiaries. If a plaintiff fails to name a known beneficiary, the court may dismiss the lawsuit for failure to comply with the Maryland Rules.

If a beneficiary does not join in the lawsuit, either because they refuse to do so or because the plaintiff cannot contact or locate them, the complaint must include the words “to the use of” before their names. This designates them as “use” plaintiffs who are entitled to notice of the filing of the lawsuit. A use plaintiff has between thirty and ninety days after they receive notice of the lawsuit, depending on where they live, to join the suit, or else they are barred from any claim. If a plaintiff, despite conducting a diligent search, fails to identify a beneficiary until after filing the lawsuit, that beneficiary may still be able to join the lawsuit if they are discovered before the statute of limitations expires.

Wais, Vogelstein, Forman & Offutt’s medical malpractice attorneys have represented clients in Maryland for over twenty years, helping them recover damages for losses and injuries resulting from the negligence of medical professionals. This may include incorrect diagnoses, pharmacy misfills, and surgical errors, to name a few. We have recovered millions of dollars in damages for our clients through verdicts and settlements. We are available 24/7 and can visit you in your home or at the hospital. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online, at (410) 567-0800 in Maryland, or at (888) 952-9669 in DC.

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