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Wrongful Death Claims in Massachusetts

Wrongful death claims in Massachusetts are based on Chapter 229, Section 2 of the Massachusetts General Laws statute. In this blog, I will discuss the most important details of this statute. The claim is brought by a personal representative of the decedent, referred to as an administrator/administratrix or executor/executrix. However, instead of going back into the estate, the financial compensation for a wrongful death claim passes outside of the estate. It is the statutory beneficiaries to whom the funds of a wrongful death (as opposed to a conscious pain and suffering) recovery are paid. The beneficiaries are listed in Section 1 of Chapter 229.

When a fatality occurs it is tragic and even more so, even more tragically, if there is conscious pain and suffering. If that occurs and if compensation is paid, the amount attributable to conscious pain and suffering does become an asset of the probate estate. That is in contrast to the money that is for wrongful death which goes directly to the statutory beneficiaries and not to the estate. This is very helpful to the client(s) because he/she can protect this money from medical liens. Medical liens are claims on the estate for debts arising from medical treatment, but they are assessed only on assets of the estate. Since wrongful death compensation is awarded to the statutory beneficiaries outside of the estate, such payments are not subject to medical liens. The monetary compensation for the decedent’s pain and suffering would be subject to medical liens, however, as such money is indeed part of the estate.

There is also the question of how much money is awarded to each of the statutory beneficiaries. This can vary. Case law dating back to the 1970s makes clear that there will be a difference in financial compensation to a parent who, for example, has lost a child with whom he/she was close as compared to amount afforded to an absentee parent. Guy v. Johnson, 15 Mass. App. Ct. 757 (1983), see also Burt v. Meyer, 400 Mass. 185 (1987). Thus the cases have to be assessed in light of the specific details and circumstances of each situation. There are also several different components of a wrongful death claim that comprise an award. For example, tangible damages are the reasonable net income that the decedent would have provided the statutory beneficiaries. Additionally, the costs associated with the funeral expenses of the decedent can be included in the wrongful death claim. There are also intangible benefits: comfort, society, support, assistance, and advice that the decedent would have provided the statutory beneficiaries. Lastly, in the Massachusetts statute, there is a provision for punitive damages. Punitive damages will be awarded in the case of gross negligence, reckless, willful or wanton disregard by a defendant. The only monetary guideline in the statute is that the punitive damage award should not be less than $5,000. This is intended to deter the kind of conduct that the defendant engaged in. Because deterrence is the goal, the defendant’s assets are a relevant factor in this award.

Each state has its own wrongful death statute and there are noticeable differences among them. I have attempted to address the most important aspects of the Massachusetts statute.

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