Legal Memorandum: Wrongful Death Damages in MA

Issue: In Massachusetts, do wrongful death beneficiaries have any cause of action independent of the wrongful death claim?

Area of Law: Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Wrongful death beneficiaries; Wrongful death claim
Jurisdiction: Massachusetts
Cited Cases: 398 U.S. 375; 550 F. Supp. 589; 356 N.E.2d 1391; 499 N.E.2d 1189
Cited Statutes: General Laws c. 229, § 2; Mass. Laws ch. 229, § 2 (1986 & Supp. 2000); Mass. Laws ch. 226, § 6A (1986 & Supp. 2000); Mass. Acts 641, § 1 amended ch. 229, § 2, and Act § 4 amended ch. 229, § 6A; Mass. Acts 427, § 2 amended ch. 229, § 2, and Act § 6 amended ch. 229, § 6A; Mass. Acts 238, § 1 amended ch. 229, § 2, and Act § 6 amended ch. 229, § 6A
Date: 08/01/2000

           The statutory beneficiaries cannot bring separate actions in their own names.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has clearly held that “the wrongful death act . . . provides the exclusive action for the recovery of the damages it encompasses by the designated beneficiaries.”  Hallett v. Town of Wrentham, 398 Mass. 550, 499 N.E.2d 1189 (1986).  In Hallett, the decedent’s administrator amended the wrongful-death complaint to include the decedent’s three children as plaintiffs seeking damages for loss of society.  The trial court allowed those claims to proceed and the jury awarded each child $50,000.  The Supreme Judicial Court decided to hear the case on direct appellate review.  Id. at 551-52, 499 N.E.2d at 1190.  In reversing the children’s verdicts, the court relied on the statute. 

The wrongful death statute provides for a single action brought by the decedent’s executor or administrator.  The executor or administrator presents all claims by the designated beneficiaries for damages flowing from the wrongful death.  General Laws c. 229, § 2, provides, “Damages under this section shall be recovered in an action of tort by the executor or administrator of the deceased. . . .”  Moreover, the statute provides for the elements of recovery, including “services, protection, care, assistance, society, companionship, comfort, guidance, counsel, and advice of the decedent . . . .”  Thus there can be only one plaintiff in a wrongful death action who asserts all claims by the designated category of beneficiaries for damages resulting from wrongful death.

Id. at 555-56, 499 N.E.2d at 1192-93 (citations […]

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