EMAIL TO A FRIEND COMMENT

 

Grief Damages Not Available in Wrongful Death; DC Not VA Law


A man died shortly after a surgical procedure at The Washington Hospital Center (WHC) in the District of Columbia. Individually, and on behalf of his estate, the man’s daughter brought a diversity action against WHC and the doctor who performed the surgery alleging that her father's death was due to their negligence. Specifically, the man’s daughter sought damages against WHC under D.C. law for funeral expenses, medical bills, pecuniary loss, emotional distress, loss of society, care, assistance, advice, and consortium. The man’s daughter also sought damages against WHC under Virginia law for solatium— i.e., grief or distress—suffered by the man’s surviving wife.

 

In the midst of discovery, the parties sought the court's determination of this choice-of-law issue. Specifically, the man’s daughter asked the court to apply Virginia, rather than D.C., law to damages for solatium in her first count for wrongful death against WHC. The man’s daughter argued that the court should apply Virginia’s solatium law because both the man and his wife were domiciled in Virginia.

 

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia denied the daughter’s motion to apply Virginia law to her solatium claim. The court reasoned that federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction must apply the substantive law of the state in which they sit and choice of law is a substantive issue, therefore it must apply D.C.'s choice-of-law rules.

 

The District of Columbia uses a governmental interest analysis, under which it evaluates the governmental policies underlying the applicable laws and determines which jurisdiction's policy would be more advanced by the application of its law to the facts of the case under review. In performing this analysis, D.C. courts consider the four factors enumerated in the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws section 145. The four Restatement factors look at the place of injury, the place of conduct causing injury, the domicile or place of business of the parties, and the place the parties' relationship is centered. District courts, moreover, need not decide all issues in a case under a single jurisdiction's law.

 

In applying the governmental interest analysis, the court held that D.C. does not recognize claims for solatium under its wrongful-death act. The court took the District's prohibition of solatium damages to mean that it has a strong interest in shielding its residents and corporations from this type of liability.

 

The court contrasted consortium claims and solatium claims. In loss-of-consortium claims, as the claimed injury is to the marriage itself, the District applies the law of the state where the marriage is domiciled. This is because the state where the marriage is domiciled has a significant governmental interest in regulating the legal rights of its married couples. In solatium claims, however, the injury is not to the marriage itself. In Virginia, solatium damages are available to the surviving spouse, children of the deceased and children of any deceased child of the deceased, the parents, brothers and sisters of the deceased, and to any other relative who is primarily dependent on the decedent for support or services and is also a member of the same household as the decedent. Because solatium damages are available to people outside of the marital relationship, these damages—unlike ones for loss of consortium—are not based on an injury to the marriage itself. The court held that the loss-of-consortium precedent does not apply. The court concluded that D.C. did not have a strong interest in permitting foreign law to govern solatium claims.

 

Virginia choice-of-law rules would apply the law of the place where the injury occurred to any solatium claim. If this case had been brought in Virginia that state's courts would have applied D.C. law on solatium, which denies this recovery. The court reasoned that even though Virginia does permit solatium damages, the fact that it would not apply its own law on solatium had the case been filed there means that the court cannot find that Virginia has a significant governmental interest in the solatium claim.

 

After it applied the governmental interest analysis, the court determined which jurisdiction had the most significant relationship to the dispute using the four Restatement factors. The four Restatement factors look at the place of injury, the place of conduct causing injury, the domicile or place of business of the parties, and the place the parties' relationship is centered. The court concluded that these factors clearly tipped in favor of application of D.C. law. First, the injury occurred in D.C. Second, the conduct that allegedly caused the injury—the surgery—also occurred in D.C. The court noted that the third factor was the only equivocal one as the man was domiciled in Virginia and the man’s daughter is currently domiciled there, while WHC's place of business is in D.C. Fourth, the hospital-patient relationship was centered in D.C. The court reasoned that, as all but the third factor strongly dictated application of D.C. law, the Restatement factors added great weight to the prior governmental interest analysis.

 

The District of Columbia prohibits solatium damages, while Virginia would not even apply its own law to allow those damages if this case had been brought there. Because of these considerations and the Restatement factors' strong tilt towards D.C., the court concluded that D.C. is the jurisdiction whose policy would be more advanced by the application of its law to the facts of the case under review. Therefore, the court applied D.C. law to the daughter's solatium claim and denied this category of damages, and issued an order denying the plaintiff's motion to apply Virginia law to her solatium claim.

 

See: Paxton v. Washington Hospital Center Corporation, 2013 WL 5550861 (D.D.C., October 9, 2013) (not designated for publication).

 

 

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