Federal District Court in District of Maryland Grants Summary Judgment Motion to Dismiss Wrongful Death Claim

6663_freeway.jpgWrongful death lawsuits are very difficult cases for any attorney to prosecute, as they are often more contentious than many other types of litigation due to the high emotional and monetary stakes involved. As a West Virginia wrongful death attorney, it is important to stay as up to date as possible on changes in the law as they happen, and at the Wolfe Law Firm, we pride ourselves on doing so. Our attorneys recently uncovered an interesting wrongful death decision rendered by the US District Court, District of Maryland, and wanted to share it with our readers.

In the Estate of Anderson v. US, Eric Anderson was a passenger in a vehicle that had stopped on the right shoulder of the Baltimore Washington Parkway and turned on its hazard lights due to limited visibility and inclement weather conditions. After the car was stopped, Anderson exited the vehicle, and was struck and killed by a tractor trailer being operated by an employee of United States Postal Service on its way to a mail processing and distribution center. After his death, his siblings filed a wrongful death and survivorship lawsuit for four million dollars in damages against the government, who then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment to dismiss the action.

Plaintiffs alleged that on the night of the accident, the driver remained in the right lane of the road and did not reduce his speed prior to the impact with Mr. Anderson. In contrast, the driver himself testified that he saw Plaintiff’s vehicle on the right shoulder, reduced his speed, and “conducted an avoidance maneuver” by steering into the left lane. The driver hit his brakes upon seeing Mr. Anderson in the roadway, but was unable to avoid him, as he claimed to be traveling at fifty miles per hour at the time. Plaintiffs allege that the big rig was traveling in excess of the posted 55 mile per hour speed limit. Both parties agreed that Mr. Anderson was killed instantly, but Plaintiffs assert that the victim suffered pre-impact trauma before he was struck by the Postal Service truck. Defendant’s dispute this claim, citing witness testimony that Mr. Anderson had been drinking heavily that night and a toxicology report showing he had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.21% (more than twice the legal limit).

In evaluating Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Court first addressed whether the government was immune from the tort claims, and determined that because the suit concerned a government employee acting in the scope of his employment, the action was allowed under the waiver of sovereign immunity clause contained within the Federal Tort Claims Act. Next, the Court evaluated whether Plaintiffs could bring a wrongful death claim under Maryland law, as the statute allows recovery for secondary beneficiaries who are related to the deceased by blood or marriage and are substantially dependent upon them. Because there were no primary beneficiaries (spouse, parent, or child), and Plaintiffs were “in no way dependent” upon Mr. Anderson, the Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the wrongful death claim.

Next, the court addressed the claims for the survival action, which are limited to compensation for the pain and suffering of the deceased and funeral expenses. Next, the court stated that damages for pre-impact fright are available where there is “great fear and apprehension of imminent death before the fatal physical impact,” but in order for plaintiffs to recover, those damages must be objectively determinable. In this case, the court found that Plaintiffs could only speculate that Mr. Anderson experienced such fears before impact, which did not meet the objectivity standard – therefore the court granted summary judgment as to damages for pre-impact fright, but allowed the claim for funeral expenses to proceed.