Wrongful Death Spouse: Zadnik v. Ambinder

Kopec Law Firm

In Maryland, when medical malpractice causes death, a wrongful death arises. One of the persons entitled to bring such a claim is the deceased’s spouse. CJP 3-904(a)(1). The question arises: who is a wrongful death spouse?

The existence of a wrongful death spouse may sound like a simple question. To get married in Maryland, you must obtain a marriage license and have a ceremony officiated per Maryland law. Conversely, state law does not allow the formation of common law marriages in Maryland. A common law marriage is one where the couple has not obtained a marriage license or had an approved ceremony. Eight states currently allow common-law marriage.

However, Maryland does recognize a common law marriage if the couple correctly enters into it in a state that recognizes such marriages. Common law marriage was the issue in a recent Maryland medical malpractice case.

The Case

The Appellate Court of Maryland issued a reported opinion in Zadnik v. Ambinder (May 23, 2023). The plaintiff filed a wrongful death action alleging that the decedent’s death from colon cancer was the result of medical malpractice in Maryland. The plaintiff alleged that the deceased was his wife under Pennsylvania common law. The doctor filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff did not have standing to bring the action. The defendant specifically argued that the plaintiff and the decedent were not legally married. (Op. at 1-2).

The trial court dismissed the complaint for lack of standing, finding that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence of the common law marriage. (Id. at 1).

The Evidence of Wrongful Death Spouse

In the plaintiff’s discovery responses, he stated that he and the decedent had exchanged vows privately in the home in Pennsylvania and became common law spouses. He gave the date and described the precise exchange. They were both divorced Catholics and could not get remarried in the church. They did not tell most of their family, friends, and neighbors, nor did they identify themselves as married in tax documents. (Id. at 2-3).

The records in the case had contradictory references. The death certificate listed the decedent as divorced, as did many of her medical records. However, the medical records refer to the plaintiff as her husband in several places. The obituary referred to the plaintiff as the decedent’s life partner. The plaintiff did not file a claim in the estate. One newspaper article referred to the decedent as wife, another as the partner. The couple held the deed to their home as joint tenants with the right of survivorship. (Id. at 3).

Trial Court Decision

The trial court ruled that the plaintiff had failed to provide sufficient evidence that he was a wrongful death spouse. He did not establish that they held themselves out as spouses. There were no witnesses to the wedding ceremony and nothing other than the plaintiff’s testimony showing that the defendant considered that event to be her wedding ceremony. Evidence of cohabitation was insufficient. The trial court dismissed the complaint. (Id. at 4-5).

Appellate Court Decision: Sufficient Evidence for Wrongful Death Spouse

Pennsylvania no longer permits common-law marriages to be formed. However, it recognizes common law marriages formed before January 2, 2005. Pennsylvania requires exchanging words in the present tense to create a marriage. Additionally, the party seeking to prove the marriage must provide clear and convincing evidence. (Id. at 9). 

The defense argued that the plaintiff could not prove the marriage solely through his self-serving testimony. (Id. at 12). However, the Appellate Court noted that Pennsylvania cases contradicted this assertion. Those cases have expressly held that the testimony of the surviving party alone as to the exchange of present tense vows is sufficient to meet the clear and convincing standard. (Id. at 13).

The Court then found that the plaintiff’s description of the marriage vows in his affidavit and discovery responses met the Pennsylvania standard. As a result, the Court ruled that dismissal or summary judgment was an error. (Id. at 14-15).

The evidence that the parties did not hold themselves out as married was irrelevant to whether the plaintiff met his burden. However, the defense could use it at trial to challenge the credibility of the plaintiff’s testimony. The Court reversed and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. (Id. at 15-16 & fn 13).

Status

At the time of this post, the trial court docket shows that this case is pending. Although the plaintiff had filed a demand for a jury trial, the docket states that the case will have a bench trial.

Commentary

Wrongful Death Spouse: Arguments for Trial

The plaintiff easily met his legal burden to get the spouse issue to trial. However, prevailing on the issue at trial may be more challenging. The defense will be able to use inconsistent evidence about the couple’s marital status.

The defense can question why the couple had no one present and did not tell close family and friends. Also, why didn’t they hold themselves out as married in legal matters? Why did they not go for the benefit of filing jointly as spouses on their taxes? Is there a reason the couple did not have their home in tenants by entireties, protection only for married couples? Why did the plaintiff not file a claim in the wife’s estate? In this lawsuit, the plaintiff now seeks to claim a legal status that he apparently has never asserted.

The plaintiff may have strong answers to these questions. It is critical to note that the issue before the trial court did not require the plaintiff to answer these questions or provide additional evidence.

The bench trial may be because the plaintiff is concerned about a Maryland jury considering the common law marriage. After all, it may be foreign to them. A judge may be more trusted to decide the issue on the facts and law.

Regardless of the motivating factors, common law marriage is a substantial question that most wrongful death spouses do not have to address. However, the issue can arise again, which is noteworthy for Maryland medical malpractice lawyers.

Recurring Issue for Maryland Medical Malpractice Lawyers

Although Pennsylvania does not recognize new common law marriages, ones before 2005 remain valid. In addition, eight other states are continuing to allow common-law marriages. As a result, some of these couples may relocate to Maryland. In addition, hospitals in Maryland regularly draw out-of-state patients for care.

Faced with this issue, the Maryland medical malpractice lawyer must assess the likelihood of prevailing on it. Failure to establish the marriage will be fatal to the whole case. Cases where the defense has evidence to challenge the marriage will have a greater risk.

Mark Kopec is a top-rated Maryland medical malpractice lawyer. He specializes in medical malpractice throughout Maryland and DC. You can contact him at 800-604-0704. Thank you for reading the Maryland Medical Malpractice Lawyer Blog.

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