Morrison Mahoney associate Kevin Buono briefed successful arguments on behalf of the defense bar in an appeal taken by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Cuddy v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., SJC-13282, and decided on July 6. The consolidated appeal of two tobacco liability claims was brought by the estate representatives of lifelong cigarette smokers killed by health complications related to smoking. Two different trial courts had dismissed wrongful death claims by the smokers’ estates, holding that because the underlying tort claims of the smokers had lapsed under the applicable statute of limitations during the smokers’ lifetimes, their estates could not revive those injury claims in the form of derivative wrongful death actions, despite the fact that the Massachusetts Wrongful Death Statute, M.G.L. c. 229, has its own three-year statute of limitations which begins on the date of death.
Kevin briefed the appeal on behalf of the Massachusetts Defense Lawyer’s Association, a professional association of defense bar trial lawyers, arguing that the trial had correctly dismissed the smokers’ claims by extension of the principle announced in the SJC’s decision in GGNSC Admin. Servs., LLC v. Schrader, where the court held that c. 229 claims are derivative of a decedent’s own cause of action for personal injury, and that unless the decedent could have brought an action for the injuries that caused his or her death, a wrongful death action cannot be maintained by the personal representative of the estate for the benefit of statutory beneficiaries. Arguing the position of the plaintiff’s bar, the dueling brief of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys maintained that the plain text of c. 229, providing that such actions be “commenced within three years from the date of death,” superseded the rule announced in GGNSC.
On behalf of a unanimous court, the opinion by Associate Justice David Lowy affirmed the rule set forth in GGNSC despite the three-year limitations period provided in the text of the Wrongful Death Statute, reasoning that the statute merely provides a temporal limit for brining viable claims and does not operate to revive a previously barred claim.