Estate is Claimant Under Tort Act; Negligent Hospital Staff Caused Infection

A man receiving treatment for Huntington’s disease at a state hospital contracted a bacterial infection due to the improper reinsertion of his feeding tube by the hospital's staff. The man died from bilateral aspiration pneumonia caused by the bacterial infection. An autopsy report noted that the findings were most consistent with a leak from the feeding tube as the cause of the bacterial infection.


The decedent had a will in which he named his father the executor of his estate. The decedent's two children were his sole heirs. After the decedent's death, the man’s father retained counsel to assist with the estate, who represented the estate as well as the decedent's parents, his two children, and the mother of his children.


A few weeks short of two years after the man died, the estate’s counsel sent a presentment letter pursuant to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), M.G.L.A. c. 258, § 4, to the office of the Massachusetts Attorney General and to the chief executive officer of the state hospital, alleging that the hospital's negligent reinsertion of the feeding tube and subsequent failure to monitor the decedent caused his death. In the letter, counsel indicated that he represented the estate and the decedent's children. At the time presentment was made, however, no executor or administrator of the estate had been formally appointed.


The Attorney General forwarded the presentment letter to the general counsel of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, requesting that she investigate the claim. About a month after the estate’s counsel sent the presentment letter, the general counsel sent a letter to the estate's counsel, acknowledging receipt of the claim and stating, “During the next several months, we will be reviewing your claim to determine whether a settlement offer is warranted....” The letter contained no indication that the presentment was defective.


About seven months later, apparently after not having received any response from the Commonwealth to its presentment, the estate brought a wrongful death action against the state hospital and against the commonwealth, under the MTCA, seeking damages arising from the man's death allegedly caused by the negligence of the hospital staff. The decedent's parents were appointed temporary coexecutors of the estate by a judge in the Probate and Family Court.


The commonwealth and the state hospital moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the statutory requirements for presentment of a claim under the act were not met when the presentment was made by the estate (through its attorney) rather than by the duly appointed executor or administrator of the estate and, as a separate matter, that the estate was not authorized to bring an action for wrongful death because, under M.G.L.A. c. 229, § 2, any such claim must be brought by the appointed executor or administrator of a decedent's estate. The estate filed an opposition to the motion to dismiss and moved to amend its complaint to name the temporary coexecutors of the decedent’s estate as the plaintiffs.


While the Superior Court Department deliberated, the decedent’s parents were appointed coexecutors of the estate by a judge in the Probate and Family Court. The estate’s counsel notified the Superior Court Department. The Superior Court Department granted the commonwealth and the state hospital’s motion and dismissed the estate’s complaint. Considering whether the presentment requirement had been met, the judge concluded that under § 4 a “claimant” for presentment purposes must be a person with the legal authority to arbitrate, compromise, or settle the claim; that a wrongful death claim can only be brought by the executor or administrator of a decedent's estate; and that, therefore, in this case, the claimant must be the appointed executor or administrator. The judge held that because the presentment here was made only by the estate, it was defective and dismissal of the complaint was required. The Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the estate’s complaint.


The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts vacated and remanded. The court held that the presentment was valid when made by the estate as the claimant before the appointment of an executor or administrator and the wrongful death action need not be dismissed because it was brought in the name of the estate rather than by a duly appointed executor or administrator.


The presentment was valid when made by the estate as the claimant before the appointment of an executor or administrator. In construing the MTCA, the court adopted the ordinary meaning of “claimant” simply as one who asserts a right or demand.  The court concluded that a claimant under the MTCA need not have legal authority to file a civil action in court if the claim were administratively denied.  


The court reasoned that interpreting “claimant” to include the estate in this case struck the appropriate balance between the act's dual purposes. At its core, the presentment requirement is about protecting the interests of the government, giving the commonwealth and other public employers the opportunity to investigate and settle claims and to prevent future claims through notice to executive officers. The presentment made by the estate did not prevent or inhibit the commonwealth from accomplishing any of these tasks—nothing about the presentment being made by the estate rather than an appointed executor or administrator interfered with the commonwealth's ability to investigate the claim presented by the estate, to settle the claim if it chose to do so, or to take steps to prevent similar claims arising in the future. With respect to investigation, there was never any ambiguity as to the identity of the individuals behind the claim presented by the estate: the presentment letter made the commonwealth aware that the claim, although in the name of the estate, was made on behalf of the decedent's children, who were the persons entitled to recover under a successful wrongful death claim.


With respect to settlement, the estate's presentment prevented the commonwealth neither from initiating settlement discussions nor from ultimately settling with the estate. At the time of presentment, the estate may not have been authorized to reach a formal settlement and release, but the court found no reason to conclude that requiring such authority at the beginning of the six-month presentment period was, in itself, essential to the settlement process. If the parties were to have reached a settlement agreement within the presentment period, the commonwealth could have required the estate to ensure that an executor or administrator was appointed and to provide proof of that authority before signing off on reaching final resolution and payment.


The wrongful death action need not be dismissed because it was brought in the name of the estate rather than by a duly appointed executor or administrator. Under the wrongful death statute, see M.G.L.A. c. 229, § 2, such an action must be brought by the executor or administrator of a decedent's estate. Improper presentment was the sole ground on which the motion judge based his dismissal of the complaint. On remand, the estate may seek leave again to amend the complaint to address the issue concerning the identity of the proper plaintiff. Relation back principles could apply to the wrongful death claim. Although the estate did not move to amend after the decedents’ parents’ appointment as coexecutors, it made a good faith effort promptly to inform the Superior Court of this change before the court issued its decision on the motion to dismiss. The court found these circumstances—particularly in light of the numerous equities—permitted the judge on remand to consider a motion to amend, despite its delay.


The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts vacated and remanded the lower courts’ dismissal of the estate’s complaint holding that the estate was a “claimant” entitled under the MTCA to make presentment of a claim.


See: Estate of Gavin v. Tewksbury State Hosp., 2014 WL 1910623 (Mass., May 15, 2014) (not designated for publication).


See also Medical Risk Law, January 2012 Report: Hospital-Acquired Infections: Who Is Liable and Why?