Who Gets the Money in a Wrongful Death Case?
A recent decision from the United States District Court reaches the initially startling conclusion that the estate of a man injured by the negligence of another driver who also died in the crash could not attach monies received by the defendant’s daughter as compensation for his death. It sounds incredibly confusing and completely illogical, but because of the way the Massachusetts wrongful death statute works, it’s exactly the right result. Here’s why:
Amnon Bogomolsky was killed when the minivan he was driving was hit by a truck driven by Michael Furlong, who also died as a result of the collision. The deadly crash took place near the approach to the Sagamore Bridge in Bourne. A state police investigation of the crash concluded that several factors contributed to the collision, including Furlong’s excessive speed, the presence of cocaine and benzodiazepines in his system, and poor brakes on his truck. The police also faulted an unknown vehicle that had merged onto Route 3 eastbound, possibly encroaching into Furlong’s lane, that caused Furlong to veer into Bogomolsky’s lane.
Bogomolsky’s estate sued Furlong’s estate, and sought an attachment of $100,000 in uninsured motorist proceeds that Commerce Insurance Company had agreed to pay to Furlong’s estate in settlement of the uninsured motorist claim–resulting from the negligence of the driver of the unidentified third car. The court in Bogomolsky v. Furlong denied the attachment, properly ruling that, under Massachusetts law, the proceeds of the wrongful death claim belonged not to Furlong’s estate, but to Furlong’s daughter, who was the beneficiary under the wrongful death statute. It sounds strange, but the court got it exactly right.
One of the interesting features of the Massachusetts wrongful death statute, G.L. c.229, ss. 1 and 2, is that the personal representative of the estate has the authority to bring a wrongful death case, but that any recovery is distributed to the so-called statutory beneficiaries–the heirs at law. The damage recovery never becomes an asset of the decedent’s estate, but instead is held by the personal representative in trust, with the obligation to distributed it directly to the beneficiaries.
What that means in the Bogomolsky case is that the $100,000 uninsurance proceeds, which were being paid on account of a claim by Furlong’s estate against the unidentified driver, never became a part of the estate, but instead, would go directly to Furlong’s daughter, the statutory beneficiary. Since the proceeds were not an asset of Furlong or his estate, they were not subject to attachment by Bogomolsky’s estate. In contrast, if Furlong had a bank account or a house in his name at the time of his death, those would be assets that the plaintiff could attach as security for a personal injury judgment.
This principle has important consequences that I’ll discuss in the next post.
Read the opinion in Bogomolsky v. Furlong here.