Most manufacturers and sellers of products understand that there are time limits on the ability of users of their products to sue for personal injuries. In Massachusetts, that limit is usually three years, with exceptions not relevant here. What is less well-known is that Massachusetts is even more generous than most states when the user of the product dies. If that happens, the user’s estate has an additional three-year period within which to commence an action.
Consider the following example: Motorist is injured on November 1, 2017 when riding a motorcycle and dies of his injuries in December of 2020, without having filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer, seller, or repairperson. His estate then waits nearly three years and sues all three in November of 2023 under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute, G.L. ch. 229. A serious wrongful death case filed nearly six years after an accident like this is barred by the statute of limitations, right? Wrong.
Massachusetts is among the minority of states holding that a wrongful death action is independent from (as opposed to derivative of) a decedent’s personal injury claim, see Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 46 cmt. c (1982), and thus courts in this Commonwealth treat them as distinct claims that arise at different times. In adopting this approach, the courts have reasoned that the cause of action for a personal injury claim belongs to the decedent for the injuries he or she personally suffers, while the wrongful death claim belongs to the family for the losses they sustain in losing a loved one. Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 45, cmt. a (1982) (“[The] personal injury claim is for the losses sustained by the injured person down to his death. … The wrongful death claim, on the other hand, is a cause of action conferred on the family of the decedent for the losses they have sustained as a result of his being killed.”); Sisson v. Lhowe, 460 Mass. 705, 711 n.9 (2011) (“Personal injury and wrongful death claims each seek to remedy a different wrong; the former for losses sustained to the injured person and the latter for losses sustained to the family of the deceased.”); Gaudette v. Webb, 362 Mass. 60, 72 (1972); Ellis v. Ford Motor Co., 628 F. Supp. 849 (D. Mass 1986).
The last of these three decisions provides extensive insight into how Massachusetts courts typically analyze statutes of limitation in product liability cases. In Ellis, the plaintiff was seriously injured in a motor vehicle collision but did not die of his injuries until ten years later. While he was alive, Mr. Ellis brought a claim for negligence and breach of warranty against the car’s manufacturer, arguing that a faulty seatbelt caused his injuries. The court held in the manufacturer’s favor, however, reasoning that Mr. Ellis did not adequately prove that the seatbelts were defective. After his death, his estate brought a wrongful death action alleging similar claims. Despite their similarity, the court recognized the estate’s claims as separate and distinct from Mr. Ellis’s claims, stating, “[Personal injury claims] are for the recovery of losses sustained by the injured person himself during his lifetime. By contrast, the family of the deceased has a distinct cause of action for the loss to them of the value of the deceased.” Id. at 855 (emphasis in original) (citing G.L. ch. 228, §1(2) and others). Additionally, the court noted that “a cause of action [under the wrongful death statute] ‘arises’ on the date of death rather than the date of injury,” thus lending support to the Massachusetts approach of allowing an estate to bring a wrongful death claim based on when the death occurs, even if many years after the injury. In so ruling, the court in Ellis established that personal injury and wrongful death claims, even if premised on the same alleged wrongdoing, are distinct claims that may be brought at different times.
Notwithstanding this gloomy landscape, Ellis offers a glimmer of hope for product liability defendants that obtain a favorable verdict in a personal injury case. Though the court in Ellis held that personal injury and wrongful death claims are distinct, it also held that a final adjudication of the defendant’s liability in the first case may bar re-litigation of such issues in any subsequent case brought by the estate. Id. at 859. Accordingly, if a manufacturer defendant successfully evades liability in the personal injury action, the decedent’s estate will not be able to challenge that finding in a subsequent wrongful death action. With this reasoning in mind, the court in Ellis granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer, holding that the estate was bound by the verdict in Mr. Ellis’s personal injury claim.
One lesson to be learned from Ellis is that a product manufacturer faced with a claimant who is likely to die has an extra incentive to defend the case aggressively. By doing so, the manufacturer puts itself in the best position to defend a wrongful death case subsequently brought by the injured user’s estate.