In a decision that makes perfect sense to anyone practicing in the area, the Supreme Judicial Court yesterday refused to use a technicality to bar a wrongful death claim against the state. In Gavin v. Tewksbury State Hospital, the Court held that a presentment otherwise properly made under G.L. c.258 s.4 was not defective because it was made in the name of an estate, rather than the personal representatives of the estate.
The SJC’s decision reversed a contrary result from the Appeals Court, vacated the Superior Court decision granting summary judgment, and sent the case back to the Superior Court, where presumably, the plaintiffs will be able to have their claim heard.
As I wrote at the time, the Appeals Court’s decision in Gavin, holding that G.L. c.258 s.4 required presentments of a wrongful death claim to be made by a properly appointed personal representative, was a real trap even for experienced lawyers. It has long been the rule that the appointment of an executor or administrator that occurs after the filing of a wrongful death suit relates back to the date of filing. Thus, even if a complaint is filed before the formal appointment, as long as the appointment is properly made eventually, there is no problem.
Oddly enough, the trap was most dangerous for lawyers who were familiar with the applicability of the relation-back principle, as they would be most likely to assume that the same rule would apply to the presentment. After all, who would think that you could file a complaint without a formal appointment, but not make a presentment?
A well-reasoned dissent, authored by Appeals Court Justice Peter Agnes Jr., made all these points and more. So long as the Commonwealth has all of the information regarding the claim–including, in the Gavin case, the identity of the beneficiaries of the estate–the statutory purposes of C.L. c.258 were satisfied. To require a formal appointment would add nothing to the process.
And the Supreme Judicial Court agreed. Rejecting the Commonwealth’s position that the word “claimant” in Chapter 258 should be interpreted to mean only that person with the legal authority to file suit, the Court determined that a more general definition was appropriate. Further, the Court noted, should the Commonwealth desire to settle a claim, it could easily demand proof of a formal appointment to ensure that it was not paying an unauthorized recipient.
The result brings the law of presentment into line with the law relating to after-appointed personal representatives in wrongful death claims–and now mirrors the law for claims brought under the Federal Tort Claims Act. It’s probably still good practice to get the personal representative appointed as soon as practicable, but the failure to do so shouldn’t be fatal.