Spangler v. McQuitty

Citation449 Md. 33,141 A.3d 156
Decision Date12 July 2016
Docket NumberNo. 69, Sept. Term, 2015.,69, Sept. Term, 2015.
PartiesDonald B. SPANGLER, et al. v. Peggy McQUITTY, et vir.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Michelle R. Mitchell (D. Lee Rutland, Wharton, Levin, Ehrmantraut & Klein, P.A., Annapolis, MD), on brief, for Petitioners.

Henry E. Dugan, Jr., George S. Tolley, III (Bruce J. Babij, Dugan, Babij & Tolley, LLC, Timonium, MD), on brief, for Respondents.



, J.

We consider, for the third time, the case of McQuitty v. Spangler, which we previously discussed in McQuitty v. Spangler, 410 Md. 1, 976 A.2d 1020 (2009)

(“McQuitty I ”), and McQuitty v. Spangler, 424 Md. 527, 36 A.3d 928 (2012) (“McQuitty II ”).1 Specifically, we explore whether the definition of “wrongful act” under the Maryland wrongful death statute, Md. Code (2006, 2013 Repl. Vol.), §§ 3–901 through 3–904 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (Cts. & Jud. Proc.”); specifically, § 3–901(e), precludes beneficiaries from maintaining a wrongful death action when the decedent obtained a personal injury judgment predicated on the same underlying facts during his lifetime. We also focus on whether a decedent's release of one joint tort-feasor in a personal injury action for any and all future claims in connection with the tortious conduct, also precludes the decedent's beneficiaries from pursuing a wrongful death action against all joint tort-feasors based on the same underlying facts.

For the reasons expressed below, we hold that Maryland's wrongful death statute creates a new and independent cause of action for a decedent's beneficiaries, and thus, a judgment on the merits in a decedent's personal injury action during his or her lifetime does not bar a subsequent wrongful death action by the beneficiaries. Additionally, we hold that pursuant to the Maryland Uniform Contribution Among Tort–Feasors Act, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–1404

, a release by the injured person of one joint tort-feasor, whether before or after judgment, does not discharge the other tort-feasors unless the release so provides. Thus, where the language of a release unambiguously reveals an intent to release only one joint tort-feasor, the release does not preclude a subsequent wrongful death action against other tort-feasors that were not parties to the release. We explain.

Prior Proceedings2

Respondents, Peggy and Gary McQuitty (“the McQuittys”), on behalf of their minor child, Dylan, successfully sued Ms. McQuitty's obstetrician and primary care physician, Donald Spangler (“Dr. Spangler”), along with his practice group, Glowacki, Elberfeld & Spangler, P.A. (collectively Petitioners), for failing to secure Ms. McQuitty's informed consent3 for treatment. As a result, Ms. McQuitty suffered complete placental abruption

, causing severe injuries to Dylan during his birth in May of 1995, and eventually, a severe condition of cerebral palsy.

The original complaint also included co-defendants, Franklin Square Hospital, where Dylan was born, and Dr. Spangler's partner, Harrold Elberfeld (“Dr. Elberfeld”). Dr. Elberfeld and Franklin Square Hospital moved for summary judgment on liability and damages, which was subsequently granted by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County in March of 2004—on the same date Dr. Elberfeld settled with the McQuittys. Franklin Square Hospital also settled with the McQuittys prior to trial, notwithstanding the summary judgment ruling in its favor. The settlements were entered on the record and the case proceeded on the informed consent claim against Petitioners as sole defendants.

Prior to trial, Petitioners moved for summary judgment. Dr. Spangler alleged that he did not have a duty to obtain the informed consent of Ms. McQuitty regarding a placental abruption

, “because he did not conduct or propose an ‘affirmative invasion of her physical integrity.’ McQuitty II, 424 Md. at 532, 36 A.3d at 931 (quoting McQuitty I, 410 Md. at 13–14, 976 A.2d at 1027–28 ). The motion was denied, and the trial ensued. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Dylan and awarded $13,078,515 in damages, including $8,442,515 in future medical expenses. Petitioners filed a Motion for Remittitur and a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (“JNOV”), raising the same argument in support of their motion for summary judgment. The circuit court granted Petitioners' motion for JNOV, which was affirmed by the Court of Special Appeals in an unpublished opinion.

In McQuitty I, 410 Md. at 33, 976 A.2d at 1039

, this Court reversed the grant of the JNOV, and remanded with instructions that the circuit court consider Petitioners' unresolved Motion for Remittitur. On September 26, 2009, prior to the resolution of the remittitur, Dylan died and the McQuittys were named as personal representatives of the Estate. Thereafter, Petitioners filed various post-trial motions, seeking a new trial or a reduction in the award for future medical expenses, alleging, inter alia, that Dylan's death was a “significant event” that affected the equities of the case.

The circuit court denied Petitioners' motion to revise the judgment, but denied in part and granted in part Petitioners' Motion for Remittitur. As a result, the court reduced the initial jury award, pursuant to the statutory cap on non-economic damages of $500,000 under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11–108(b)(2)(i)

, and also reduced the judgment by fifty percent to reflect Dr. Elberfeld's pro rata share of liability, as a result of the joint tort-feasor release from the McQuittys, in compliance with the Uniform Contribution Among Tort–Feasors Act, under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–1404.

The circuit court also denied Petitioners' requests to permit the periodic payment of future economic damages under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11–109(c)

, which would have reduced the jury's award by the Franklin Square Hospital's settlement amount. The court ultimately reduced the judgment to $5,039,257.50, plus post-judgment interest calculated from the date of the entry of judgment, on September 27, 2006, plus costs. Petitioners subsequently filed a renewed motion for a new trial and a motion to alter, amend, or revise the judgment, which were both denied. Thereafter, Petitioners noted a timely appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, but this Court granted certiorari, prior to that proceeding. In McQuitty II, 424 Md. at 529–30, 36 A.3d at 929–30, we affirmed the circuit court's judgment. Subsequently, on March 23, 2012, Petitioners satisfied the judgment.

Respondents' Wrongful Death Action

On May 17, 2012, Respondents filed a wrongful death action against Petitioners, under the Maryland wrongful death statute, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–901 et seq.

, to recover damages based upon the same underlying facts in the personal injury action regarding Dr. Spangler's failure to obtain informed consent. On August 1, 2012, Petitioners filed a Motion to Dismiss Respondents' action. Following a December 6, 2012 hearing, the motion was granted. The circuit court concluded that Respondents' wrongful death action was precluded by the judgment in Dylan's favor “because Dylan no longer had a right to bring another claim against [ ] [Petitioners] at the time of his death.” Subsequently, on January 4, 2013, Respondents appealed the judgment.

While the matter was pending before the Court of Special Appeals, this Court issued its opinion in Mummert v. Alizadeh, 435 Md. 207, 77 A.3d 1049 (2013)

, which concerned similar issues to those presented here regarding the definition of “wrongful act” under Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 3–901(e). In Mummert, the decedent's husband and three children brought a wrongful death action against the decedent's physician, based on a failure to timely diagnose the decedent's colorectal cancer. Id. at 210–11, 77 A.3d at 1051. The physician filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful death action because the statutory three-year period in the wrongful death statute had expired relative to the decedent's personal injury action prior to her death. Id. The motion was subsequently granted. Id. at 211, 77 A.3d at 1052.

Accordingly, the narrow question before this Court in Mummert was whether the decedent's failure to file a personal injury claim in her lifetime within the limitations period, precluded her wrongful death beneficiaries from filing a wrongful death action based upon the same negligent act after her death. Id. at 212, 77 A.3d at 1051–52

. In reversing the circuit court's dismissal of the action, we held that, in enacting the wrongful death statute, the General Assembly “did not intend to define ‘wrongful act’ so as to render a wrongful death claim contingent on the decedent's ability to file timely a tort claim prior to death.” Id. at 210, 77 A.3d at 1051. We also held that the statute of limitations for bringing tort claims against health care providers in instances of alleged medical negligence does not apply to a claim for wrongful death.” Id.

In so holding, we reaffirmed the independent nature of wrongful death actions established in Stewart v. United Elec. Light & Power Co., 104 Md. 332, 65 A. 49, 53 (1906)

, which provided that a wrongful death action was enacted to allow surviving relatives and beneficiaries “who [were] wholly dependent on the decedent, to recover damages for his or her own loss accruing from the decedent's death.” Mummert, at 219–20, 77 A.3d at 1056.

We also observed that a wrongful death action, was, in some respects, derivative of a decedent's personal injury claim, and thus, where certain defenses would bar a decedent's claim, they would similarly bar a wrongful death action brought by the decedent's surviving relatives. Id. at 222, 77 A.3d at 1057

. We noted that the defenses which generally bar subsequent actions, such as contributory negligence, assumption of the risk, parental immunity, and lack of privity of contract, were distinguishable from the statute of limitations at issue, because where the former...

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