Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label survival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label survival. Show all posts

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.

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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.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Beijing internet court rules against ISP Baidu on posthumous defamation claim under PRC Tort Law

In a Chinese defamation case, the Beijing Internet Court has ruled in favor of the plaintiff and contrary to American tort norms regarding ISP immunity and posthumous defamation.

Sixth Tone reported on the suit "filed by the son of the late playwright, screenwriter, and composer Zhao Zhong" (赵忠).  The suit alleged that an anonymous user of Baidu's Baike, China's answer to Wikipedia, edited Zhao's biographical page to defamatory effect.  The edits by user "charming and beautiful woman" (Qiaonü Jiaren) criticized Zhao as a "thief" and cultural "traitor," and deleted the libretto of the opera Red Coral from his listed oeuvre.  The changes remained on the page for five years, from 2013 to 2018, until Zhao's family noticed and demanded correction.  Baidu reversed the edits.  The son nevertheless complained of negligence in Baidu's failure reasonably to moderate content and consequent reputational injury to the family.

The court ruled against Baidu.  Beijing tort lawyer Qu Zhenhong told Sixth Tone that Baidu's compliance with the defamation notice-and-takedown procedure of PRC Tort Law article 36 did not relieve the internet service provider of liability under article 6 for the defamation's five years in publication.  That approach deviates from the powerful ISP immunity of 47 U.S.C. § 230 in the United States—which has faced slowly mounting criticism both at home and in Europe.

A second deviation from American tort norms arises in the allowance of a defamation action by the family after the death of the person defamed.  Common law jurisdictions including the United States continue generally to observe the historic rule that defamation claims die with their claimants, though states are widely experimenting with the posthumous right of publicity by statute.  Cf. The Savory Tort on Defaming the Dead.

The court made clear that it approves of a family's ancillary defamation claim, not just a decedent's claim that persists after death.  "A negative social assessment of the deceased not only violates the reputation of the deceased, but also affects the overall reputation of the deceased's close relatives as well as personal reputation," People's Court News wrote in summary of the court's decision (Google translation). "Therefore, for any close relative of the deceased, they have the right to request the court to protect the right [of the] deceased, or to pursue the responsibility of infringing on their own reputation based on their close relatives."

By its publisher's description, Red Coral (Hong shan hu) "describes the story of the peoples who lived in the red coral island and fought against the troops of Chiang Kaishek. They cooperated with the Red Army and defeated the enemy with the guidance of the people's Liberation Army."  Red Coral was adapted to film in 1961 (DVD pictured).

Monday, May 20, 2019

The summer beach read you've been looking for:
Don Herzog on 'Defaming the Dead'


Looking for the perfect gift for that tort lover in your family?  The perfect read for the beach this summer?  Look no farther.  Pick up Don Herzog’s Defaming the Dead (Yale University Press 2017).

Herzog, a law professor at the University of Michigan, published this odd delight.  He makes a cogent argument against the common law rule prohibiting defamation actions predicated on injury to the reputation of the dead.  I was skeptical: a whole book about this little common law trivium?  Turns out, the history of defamation and the dead is compelling: at times bizarre, thought-provoking, and often funny, especially in Herzog’s capable conversational style.

Do you care what people say about you after you die?  It’s human nature to put a lot of thought into the future beyond your lifespan.  But it doesn’t really matter.  You won’t be here to be injured by defamation, nor gratified by its omission.  And if you’ve moved on to a heavenly (or other) afterlife, why would you care what mortals are saying back on earth?  Sometimes we imagine that we care about the future because we want happiness for our survivors.  But we won’t be here to know whether they have it, so is the interest really ours, or theirs?  Should the law protect either?  These problems, which Herzog posits in the beginning of the book, force some deep thought about what we want to accomplish with tort law—e.g., compensation, deterrence, anti-vigilantism—and accordingly, how we think about tort’s elements—duty, breach, causation, and injury—in the context of dignitary harms.

To oversimplify, Herzog pits what he calls “the oblivion thesis”—you can’t assert legal rights from beyond—against the Latin maxim and social norm, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, loosely meaning, “speak no ill of the dead.”  Common law defamation observes the first proposition, while as to the second, Herzog cautions: “No reason to think that just because it’s stated in Latin and has an imposing history, it makes any sense.”

Yet as Herzog then well demonstrates, we observe the Latin maxim in American (and British) common law in all kinds of ways.  The law’s purported disinterest in protecting reputations of the dead never became a rule in criminal libel.  And 19th century precedents that excluded post mortem defamation recovery seem to have been motivated by the same illogic that survival statutes were meant to redress.

Meanwhile we recognize a range of legal interests that appear to reject the oblivion thesis:  We honor the intentions of the dead in trusts and estates.  Attorney and medical privileges can survive death, even as against the interests of the living.  In intellectual property, copyright and publicity rights survive death, and trademark discourages disparagement of the dead.  Privacy in the federal Freedom of Information Act protects survivors by way of the decedent’s personal rights.  And Herzog devotes an entire riveting chapter to legal prohibitions on—and compensations for—corpse desecration.

Whether or not you’re convinced in the end that the common law rule on defaming the dead should yield, Herzog’s tour of the field is a worthwhile interrogation of much more than defamation, and much more than tort law.  His thesis unpacks the fundamental question of who we think we are, if we are so much more than the sum of our carbon compounds; and how that understanding of our personhood is effected and perpetuated by our most curious construct: the rule of law.