If a person’s right to bring a personal injury lawsuit ends at the time of his or her death, the person’s estate is barred from bringing a wrongful death suit in Massachusetts for the benefit of the beneficiaries.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed the dismissal of wrongful death lawsuits against two women whose husbands died after smoking cigarettes for 40 and 50 years. Both wives are pursuing wrongful-death lawsuits against tobacco companies and retailers they say have supplied their husbands with their cigarettes for decades.
But the high court, agreeing with the lower court judges in both cases, said that there is no right for wives to bring a wrongful death lawsuit because the statute of limitations on their husbands which underlying right to sue has expired before their death.
“[I]n Massachusetts, we follow the general rule that wrongful death liability is derivative. Accordingly, we follow the majority approach that precludes recovery for wrongful death where the statute of limitations on the decedent’s underlying claims runs prior to the decedent’s death,” wrote the Supreme Court Justice, citing its own 2020 decision (GGNSC Admin. Servs., LLC vs. Schrader) of the issue.
In both cases, the defendant tobacco companies and retailers moved to dismiss the claims. Various Superior Court judges granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss. Both judges cited 2020 holding that wrongful death liability is derivative and thus claims are barred because each decedent cannot bring claims based on injuries that caused his death if he was saved.
Ralph Fabiano started smoking at the age of 15 when he received free samples of cigarettes, including L&M brand cigarettes manufactured by Philip Morris USA. Fabiano became addicted to smoking and continued to buy and smoke L&M cigarettes for the next 50 years. He used to buy L&M cigarettes from Shaw’s Supermarkets. In 2004, Ralph was diagnosed with emphysema due to long-term smoking. He died of cancer at age 67 in July 2014, 10 years after his diagnosis, without a lawsuit. Less than three years later, in July 2017, his wife Grace, as the personal representative of his estate, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against Philip Morris USA Inc. and Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc.
John Fuller regularly bought Camel cigarettes from Cumberland Farms. In 2012, he was diagnosed with lung cancer due to long-term smoking. He died of lung cancer four years later in November 2016 without bringing an injury suit. In September 2017, his wife Mary, as personal representative of his estate, brought a wrongful death claim based on breach of warranty, negligence, and conspiracy.
Grace Fabiano and Mary Fuller, as personal representatives of their husbands’ estates, appealed the Superior Court’s dismissals of their cases. The Supreme Court of the Judiciary provides direct appellate review.
Massachusetts has a three-year statute of limitations for bringing personal injury suits that begins on the date of injury or diagnosis, a period past the time the men in these cases died. There is also a three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits.
Grace Fabiano and Mary Fuller each sued for wrongful death within three years of their husbands’ deaths. They argued that their estates had the right to sue on behalf of the beneficiaries, that their actions should be governed by the three-year statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit, and that the clock should start from date of death of their husbands.
The defendants again sought to dismiss the claims, citing the same GGNSC ruling, which established that the right to bring a wrongful death claim depends on whether the right to sue exists in before the death of the deceased. The cigarette companies maintain that the wrongful death action should not restart the statute of limitations clock. They warned, and the Superior Court agreed, that such an interpretation meant they could be sued multiple times for the same alleged injury before and years after the death.
Estates do no better in the Supreme Court of Judiciary than they did in the lower courts. The high court upheld the GGNSC ruling and dismissed the estates’ claims because the right to sue expired before the men died.
“Where a decedent had no right at the date of his death to sue for damages that caused his death, there is no cause of action for wrongful death based on the death-caused damages provided by the decedent’s representative for to the benefit of the beneficiaries,” wrote the high court referring to the GGNSC.
In these tobacco cases, the court held that because a cause of action for wrongful death never arose for the decedent’s representative, it never accrued, and the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death actions are never triggered.
The court noted that in jurisdictions such as Massachusetts where wrongful death liability originates, the majority weighing the issue agrees that, if the decedent’s underlying personal injury claim is barred by the statute of limitations at the time of death, no. the right of wrongful death is made by the representative of the deceased’s estate for the benefit of the beneficiaries.
The plaintiffs further argued that the court’s approach “creates fundamental unfairness by forcing those suffering from life-threatening illnesses to make the unwarranted choice to file a lawsuit while they are suffering. of illness or lost the right of their heirs once the statute of limitations before their death.”
The high court responded that its decision “does not change the long-standing reality of people suffering serious injuries. Once injuries are identified, plaintiffs must assert their rights within a certain period of time or lose their ability to recover for their damages.
The court reiterated its conclusion that “since the right to recover for wrongful death arises from the right of a decedent to recover for his injuries, if the decedent, during his lifetime, loses or loses- in the ability to recover, there is no right. The recovery lies with his beneficiaries.”