When a family member dies as a result of someone else’s negligence, the law provides a remedy in the form of a wrongful-death lawsuit. A wrongful-death lawsuit is designed to compensate close family members for their loss. In Maryland (like other States), the family members who are entitled to recover are defined by law. The persons entitled to recover are generally the spouse, children and parents of the decedent. See Md. Code Cts. & Jud. Proc. 3-904.
Maryland’s wrongful-death law not only allows these family members to bring an action, but it also requires that they be named as plaintiffs in the action. Maryland’s highest court recently confirmed that even long-lost relatives (who fit within the statute) must be named in the suit. The case, called University of Maryland Medical System Corporation v. Muti,2012 MD LEXIS 269 (2012), provides a cautionary tale for today’s complex family structures.
Mr. Muti died in 2005 as a result of alleged medical malpractice. His wife and two adult sons (the “Muti Family”) filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the medical providers. The Muti Family was aware that Mr. Muti had been married previously and had adopted a son, Ricky, during the first marriage. But neither Mr. Muti nor the Muti Family had any contact with Ricky for 30 years. Having had no contact with Ricky for 30 years, and not knowing where he was, the Muti Family did not identify Ricky as a plaintiff in the case. When the Muti Family’s failure to identify Ricky as a plaintiff was discovered, the trial court dismissed the entire case.
On appeal, Maryland’s highest court ruled that even though no one knew of Ricky’s whereabouts, or whether he was still alive, the Muti Family was required to identify him as a “Use Plaintiff” in the lawsuit. “Use Plaintiffs” are essentially placeholders; when you know that a potential plaintiff exists, but you do not represent him/her or know of his/her whereabouts, you still must identify the person as a “Use Plaintiff” when you file the lawsuit so that the Court and the defendants are aware of this fact.
While the appellate court thought this dismissal of the entire case was too harsh, it did reiterate that all known “Use Plaintiffs” must be named when a wrongful-death case is filed.
Word to the wise: keep track of long-lost relatives!