• June 24, 2024

Court Sets Wrongful Death Timeline

 Court Sets Wrongful Death Timeline

Image: mehaniq41 | Adobe Stock

Image: mehaniq41 | Adobe Stock

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that family members of a deceased individual cannot file wrongful death suits if the death occurred more than three years after the injury that caused the death, reports Reuters. This ruling upholds the dismissal of claims against Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. 

Under Massachusetts law, according to Justice David Lowy, wrongful death claims are “derivative” of personal injury claims that the deceased could have brought in life. If the three-year statute of limitations has run out at time of death, family members have no wrongful death claims. 

This latest decision follows two lawsuits, one against Philip Morris USA in 2017 (Fabiano v. Philip Morris USA Inc and others, No. SJC-13282) and one against R.J. Reynolds in 2016 (Fuller v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co and others, No. SJC-13346). Both were brought by the wives of men who became sick and died after lifetimes of smoking. The lawsuits accused the companies of breach of warranty, negligence and conspiracy. These wrongful death claims were dismissed by different trial judges, who stated that both men would have been time-barred from bringing their own claims when they died, meaning their family members were not able to file wrongful death claims.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed to hear both cases. The court previously decided that wrongful death claims are derivative of the deceased’s claims but had not addressed how that would affect the statute of limitations, according to Lowy’s opinion.

The statute of limitations for the deceased’s underlying injury claims determines whether surviving family can bring a wrongful death claim, according to the language of the Massachusetts wrongful death law.

Lowy wrote that the decision “in no way changes what has long been true of persons suffering from serious injuries,” in a footnote addressing an argument by plaintiffs that the decision creates a “fundamental unfairness” by forcing sick individuals to bring lawsuits while they are suffering or forfeit their heirs’ rights to recovery.

“Once those injuries are knowable, plaintiffs must assert their rights within a specified period of time or lose their ability to recover for their injuries,” Lowy wrote.