Families of those who lose a loved one often want to know what the value is of the legal claims that can be brought against those responsible for the death. How in the world can anyone put a value on someone's life? Therefore, at the outset, I am reminded of some words of wisdom that one of Maryland's top mediators has occasionally bestowed upon my clients at mediations involving the death of a loved one:
"We are not putting a value of your son's life, we are discussing the value of this particular lawsuit. There is a big difference."
The bottom line truth is that the value of any death case based on negligence in Maryland is generally limited by Maryland's cap on non-economic damages plus any economic losses that can be established at trial.
In my opinion, the value of most wrongful death claims in Maryland is at least the applicable cap on damages plus any proven economic losses. Of course this value can change if liability is in dispute, if there is limited insurance coverage, or, in extremely rare circumstances if punitive damages can be established and collected.
A few things additional things to consider:
1. The value of wrongful death claims in Maryland is limited by tort reform. Maryland has a cap on non-economic damages. For personal injury cases such as car accidents and slip and falls, the cap is approximately $755,000.00 for any single claim, and the cap is about $1,132,500.0 for all wrongful death claims with 2 or more beneficiaries. Therefore, the amount that can be recovered in any wrongful death case is limited to economic losses sustained plus the cap.
In 2005 there was a special legislative session held, and additional tort reform was passed further limiting non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases that result in death. For medical malpractice cases in Maryland, the cap on non-economic damages for claims arising after 1/1/12 is $710,000.00 for an individual claim, and $887,500.00 for all wrongful death claims.
2. Insurance Coverage. Often times, the value of a wrongful death claim is limited by the amount of insurance coverage the "at fault" party has. Hiring an experienced wrongful death lawyer is important because we are trained to try to identify additional theories of liability and additional defendants which can trigger additional insurance coverage. For more information about this, see an Article I wrote for other attorneys titled Not so Fast...Don't Accept A Low Policy Limits Settlement Offer For Your Catastrophically Injured Client. DOCKG Summer 08trialreparticle.pdf
3. When a person dies in Maryland, multiple claims arise. The estate of the person who dies can bring a survival action on behalf of the individual for funeral expenses, economic losses and pain and suffering that the decedent suffered between injury and death. This survival claim is brought by the Personal Representative of the Estate of the person who died. In addition to the survival claim, the spouse, children and parents of the deceased person each have an individual "wrongful death claim." These "Maryland Wrongful Death Claims" are statutory claims governed by Section 3-904 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article of the Maryland Code.
4. The statute of limitations for wrongful death cases in Maryland is 3 years from the date of death. There is a statutory exception to this rule is for "occupational disease" contracted in the workplace (e.g. asbestos cases). In those cases the statute of limitations can be extended to the shorter of 10 years from the date of death or within 3 years of the date when the cause of death was discovered. TO BE SAFE, ASSUME THAT THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS FOR ANY MARYLAND WRONGFUL DEATH CLAIM IN 3 YEARS FROM THE DATE OF DEATH.
5. Choice of Law Can Have A Huge Impact On Case Value. If a Maryland resident dies as a result of a wrongful act that occurs in another State, the Maryland Court will apply the law of that State. This is important because Maryland's neighboring States-Washington, D.C. and Virginia-do not have a cap on non-economic damages in personal injury cases (note: Virginia does have a cap on damages in Medical Malpractice cases). A good wrongful death attorney can help determine whether there are any ways to get around Maryland's cap on non-economic damages by either filing in another state or getting the Maryland Courts to apply another state's substantive law.
6. Punitive Damages: It is nearly impossible to get punitive damages in a wrongful death case based on negligence in Maryland. Generally speaking, the only way to get punitive damages in Maryland is to prove that the act that caused the death was intentional. A problem can arise because once a lawyer establishes that the negligent act was intentional, the liability carrier may take the position that there is no insurance coverage. Unlike many other states, punitive damages are extremely rare in Maryland.
Conclusion: When a loved one dies as a result of someone else's negligence in Maryland, it is important to discuss the legal actions with a personal injury lawyer familiar with Maryland's wrongful death law. The value of wrongful death cases in Maryland is often limited by Maryland's cap on non-economic damages, and by limited insurance coverage. Our job, as Maryland personal injury lawyers, is to help the families of those who lose a loved one to maximize the damages that they recover.