In a recent medical malpractice and wrongful death case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) examined the requirement of “presentment” under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA) – a statutory prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a governmental entity – and how, under the facts of the case, that requirement reconciled with the requirement as to who is permitted to file an action under Massachusetts’ wrongful death statute.
The MTCA makes a public employer liable for property loss, personal injury, or death caused by the negligence of a public employee who was acting within the scope of his or her employment. Under the MTCA, before filing a lawsuit, a person harmed by a public employee’s negligence must first “present” his or her claim, in writing, to the executive officer of the public employer responsible, and must do so within two years after the date on which the negligence occurred. This “presentment” gives the public employer six months to investigate the claim, and either deny it or reach a settlement. If the employer does not respond at all, it is considered a denial. After the six-month period has passed, the claimant may file a lawsuit. However, if the claimant does not abide by this presentment procedure, he or she is barred from bringing an action.
In Estate of Steven Gavin v. Tewksbury State Hospital, the deceased died after a bout with Huntington’s disease and a bacterial infection. The deceased’s estate alleged that the death was caused by a bacterial infection that developed when a feeding tube was improperly reinserted into the deceased, and as a result of the hospital staff’s failure to monitor the deceased’s condition. The deceased passed away in August 2008. The deceased’s estate, through its attorney, sent a presentment letter to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office in July 2010 (within the two-year statutory period), presenting the estate’s claim against the state hospital under the requirements of the MTCA. The Attorney General properly forwarded the letter on to the general counsel of Health and Human Services. However, at the time the presentment letter was sent, no executor of administrator of the deceased’s estate had yet been formally appointed.
Under Massachusetts’ wrongful death statute, an action for the wrongful death of the decedent must be brought by the executor or administrator of the decedent’s estate. The executors of the decedent’s estate did file suit for his wrongful death, but the Commonwealth successfully moved to dismiss that lawsuit on the basis that, because only the executors of the estate had the right to bring the lawsuit, only the executors of the estate could make the presentment pursuant to the MTCA. Because no such executor or administrator was appointed at the time of the presentment, sent by an attorney on behalf of the estate only, the superior court agreed with the Commonwealth that the executors of the estate had not met the presentment requirement. The Appeals Court affirmed this decision, finding that the lack of a formally appointed executor of administrator was decisive, and that the case must be dismissed for lack of conformity with statutory conditions.
The SJC, however, disagreed. Discussing the meaning of the word “claimant” for purposes of presentment, the SJC noted that the MTCA makes no mention of the wrongful death statute, and found that there is no reason to consider these two statutes together. While the wrongful death statute requires a duly appointed executor or administrator, the MTCA’s silence on that requirement, and the lack of any danger of fraud under the circumstances, justified the SJC’s reversal of the dismissal. Moreover, the SJC found that the estate’s attorney’s presentment letter burdened neither the public employer’s ability to investigate the claim nor its ability to negotiate or reach settlement with the estate. Accordingly, the SJC reversed the dismissal, and permitted the estate’s wrongful death and medical malpractice claims to move forward.