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Showing posts with label elder care. Show all posts
Showing posts with label elder care. Show all posts

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Court: Family of elder-care resident may use rare 'bill for discovery' to investigate how broken foot occurred

In an unusual case last week, the Massachusetts Appeals Court allowed a "bill for discovery" to proceed despite its arguable incompatibility with rules of civil procedure.

Mary T. Atchue, an elderly resident in an assisted living facility in Worcester, Massachusetts, sustained a broken foot while being moved.  In an action maintained by her family since her death, Atchue filed a "complaint for discovery," based in equity.

The court held that the complaint could proceed, despite objection from defendant Benchmark Senior Living, LLC, that the claim would not be allowed by the state rule of civil procedure for pre-litigation discovery.  Discovery processes specified by statute and rule supersede the historic bill for discovery in equity insofar as they pertain, the court reasoned, but the bill remains available to supplement modern practice where it does not pertain.

The viability of a bill for discovery is dependent on the viability of the underlying potential claim in litigation, the court further held.  Atchue has a viable theory on tolling the statute of limitations, and her claims survive her death under the state survival statute.  So a bill for discovery remains available.

I don't usually dig into civil procedure cases, but this one caught my eye because of the unusual disposition in pre-litigation discovery.  I've written with approval about the use of the access to information law, or freedom of information act, in South Africa having been used as a pre-litigation discovery device, specifically, in fact, for a potential plaintiff to investigate the possibility of negligence in healthcare services.

Shaped by the experience of apartheid, the South African law, and comparable laws elsewhere in Africa modeled on it, allow access to information in the private sector when the complainant can demonstrate sufficient need grounded in civil rights.

The court vacated dismissal and remanded.

The case is Atchue v. Benchmark Senior Living LLC, No. 19-P-125 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 5, 2020).  Justice Vickie L. Henry wrote the opinion for a panel that also comprised Justices Rubin and Wolohojian.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Waiver of negligence precludes later suit by family, high court holds in nursing home, diving death cases

Image by edar from Pixabay
In two cases at the end of February, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court made clear that a person's express disposal of a negligence claim can preclude a later wrongful death suit by family.  In other words, Massachusetts wrongful death claims are derivative, not independent, of a decedent's rights.

"Wrongful death" and "survival" actions are creatures of 19th-century statute in Anglo-American law, the historic common law having extinguished all causes of action upon death—for curious historical reasons that I won't explicate here.  Formally, "wrongful death" is an action by surviving family for their losses, upon the occasion of the decedent's passing.  "Survival" is an action by the estate on behalf of the decedent, as if the decedent had lived.  However, this distinction is often blurred in law, as the actions are brought together as "wrongful death" under Massachusetts statute, and is often blurred in fact, as a single person may stand as a family member and estate representative at the same time.  However the actions are characterized in court, wrongful death and survival have become so universally entrenched in Anglo-American tort law, often upon sparsely worded and rarely amended statutes, that they function in the courts very much like common law causes of action, subject to interpretation in deep bodies of case law.

Image by whitfieldink from Pixabay
In one of the February cases, Jackalyn Schrader, acting with power of attorney for her mother, Emma, signed a "voluntary and clearly labeled" commitment to arbitrate disputes upon admitting Emma to residence at the Golden Living Center-Heathwood, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in February 2013.  After Emma died in December 2013, Schrader brought a wrongful death claim under Massachusetts statute, in federal court, alleging that nursing home negligence caused bedsores, leading to Emma's death.  Schrader sought to evade the effect of the arbitration agreement by pointing out that she had not signed it in her personal capacity, and state law vests a wrongful death claim in family.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay
In the second of the February cases, Margaret C. Doherty, as representative of the estate and the decedent's statutory beneficiaries, sued in wrongful death upon a 2014 diving accident that took the life of her son-in-law, 37-year-old Gregg C. O'Brien.  O'Brien "was a certified open-water scuba diver [and] drowned while participating in a promotional diving equipment event that was sponsored by [defendants] and held in Gloucester," Mass.  Before participating in the event, O'Brien had signed:
a release from liability which had several subsections that were set forth in all capital letters and underlined, including "effect of agreement," "assumption of risk," "full release," "covenant not to sue," "indemnity agreement," and "arbitration."  In capital letters under the subsection titled "effect of agreement," it said, "Diver gives up valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death." It also told the decedent to read the agreement carefully and not to sign it "unless or until you understand." ... [T]he subsection titled "covenant not to sue" stated that the decedent agreed "not to sue ... for personal injury arising from scuba diving or its associated activities," and that the decedent's "heirs or executors may not sue."
Asserting defendants' negligence, Doherty sought to evade the effect of the release by pointing out that the statutory beneficiaries were not party to any agreement.

Associate Justice David A. Lowy
In Schrader's case, the First Circuit certified a question to the Supreme Judicial Court to determine whether a wrongful death action in Massachusetts is independent of a decedent's action, so Schrader would be free of the arbitration agreement, or bound by the decedent's action, so Schrader would be bound by the arbitration agreement, even though she signed it only on behalf of her mother.  Schrader might have understood that her theory under statute was weak, because she sought to play up the court's power to evolve wrongful death law beyond the text of statute.  The court agreed that it had considerable power to evolve wrongful death as a function of common law.  At the same time, though, the court insisted that its job begins with statutory interpretation.  Resorting to the text of Massachusetts's first-in-the-nation, 1840 wrongful death statute, and in accordance with the weight of authority in other states, the court found the derivative nature of a wrongful death claim inescapable.  Schrader must therefore seek relief under the arbitration agreement.

In Doherty's case, the Supreme Judicial Court cited its decision in Schrader and likewise concluded, affirming, that the claims on behalf of the decedent's statutory beneficiaries were derivative and not independent of the decedent's rights.  "Therefore ... the valid waivers signed by the decedent preclude the plaintiff, as [O'Brien's] 'executor or personal representative,' from bringing a lawsuit ... for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries."

The cases are GGNSC Admin. Servs., LLC v. Schrader, No. SJC-12714 (Mass. Feb. 27, 2020) (Justia; Suffolk Law), and Doherty v. Diving Unlimited Int'l, Inc., No. SJC-12707 (Mass. Feb. 27, 2020) (Justia).  Justice David A. Lowy wrote both decisions for a unanimous court.