Massachusetts Court Finds Waiver Signed by Accident Victim Precludes Subsequent Wrongful Death Case

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a Massachusetts wrongful death case involving the effect of a waiver that the accident victim signed before his death. Ultimately, the court concluded that wrongful death claims are derivative of the accident victim’s claim, rather than independent. Thus any waiver signed by the accident victim can preclude a subsequent wrongful death case.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s written opinion, a scuba diver drowned while participating in a promotional event that was sponsored by the manufacturer of a “dry suit.” During the event, an instructor was to lead dives for those who were interested in purchasing a dry suit. Before the event, the diver signed two documents: a release from liability and an equipment rental agreement.

The release of liability stated, among other things, that the diver was giving up “valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death. The text was in capital letters and clearly visible. The equipment rental agreement contained similar language, purporting to limit the diver’s ability to sue the manufacturer in the event of injury or death.

After the diver’s death, his personal representative filed a wrongful death claim against the dry suit manufacturer (“the defendant”). The defendant claimed that the releases signed by the diver precluded the personal representative of his estate from pursuing a wrongful death claim. The issue for the court to determine was whether the statutory beneficiaries in the action for wrongful death have a right to recover damages that is independent of the decedent’s own cause of action. If so, then the fact that the diver agreed not to sue would be immaterial.

The court, however, determined that a wrongful death case is derivative of the decedent’s cause of action, and thus, the waiver prevented the lawsuit. The court’s analysis was primarily taken from an opinion in another case that presented the same issue and was decided on the same day. In that case, the issue involved an arbitration contract that a nursing home resident had signed prior to their admission. In its opinion, the court reviewed common-law understandings about wrongful death cases, the language of the Massachusetts wrongful death statute, and similar cases in other jurisdictions, ultimately determining that wrongful death claims are derivative.

Consult with an Experienced Attorney Today

If you or a loved one has recently been injured after signing a release of liability, do not give up hope. Often, releases of liability are overly broad or otherwise defective and unenforceable. If that is the case, these documents will not prevent you from pursuing a claim against the at-fault party. The lawyers at the Law Offices of Barry Feinstein & Affiliates P.C. have been fighting the big insurance companies for over 25 years, handling various personal injury lawsuits, including Massachusetts car accidents, medical malpractice, and wrongful death claims. We are continuing to provide free consultations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. To learn more, contact our office at 800-262-9200 to schedule your free initial consultation.

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