Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Stiffelman v. Abrams, 655 S.W.2d 522 (Mo. 1983).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a claim for injuries that ultimately results in death ever be brought in place of a wrongful death claim?
This case dealt with whether a wrongful death claim was the exclusive remedy for a wrong that ultimately caused the death of an individual. Id. at 532. Looking at the statutes at play here, the court found that these “remedies exist side by side,” and the wrongful death statute did not preclude bring a suit under the Omnibus Nursing Home Act (“ONHA”). Id. Thus, Plaintiff could maintain a cause of action under the ONHA. Id. at 533.
Plaintiff is in this case is the executor of the estate of a deceased former resident of Defendant’s nursing home. Id. at 525. At the time of his death, the resident was ninety years old. Id. Staff of the nursing home kicked, hit, and otherwise beat the resident over a period of approximately three weeks just before his death. Id. at 526. As a result of these beatings, the resident suffered in great agony in the days preceding his death. Id. Upon the resident’s death and Plaintiff’s discovery of these actions, Plaintiff filed suit under the ONHA’s private cause of action provision. Id. Plaintiff sought damages relating to the pain and suffering the resident suffered in his final days, funeral expenses, and punitive damages. Id. at 526-27. The trial court dismissed the case, stating that the only cause of action that would be available was a wrongful death action, of which Plaintiff could not bring. Id.
The court traced the evolution of the wrongful death action under Missouri law. Id. at 531. For a long period of time, Missouri law did not allow an “action for damages for injuries which did not result in death, and an action for damages for death which was brought about by injuries.” Id. However, this is not the state of the law today (or in 1983, when this case was decided). Id. The key now is determining what the tort seeks to redress: harm suffered before death (a survival action) or damages arising from the death itself (wrongful death claim). Id.
A private cause of action under ONHA allows for recovering damages based on physical and emotion abuse. Id. These types of damages are “compensatory” and actual damages suffered by the deceased during his lifetime. Id. However, the statute also permits recovery of funeral expenses, which can’t be recovered until after death, and thus belong to the estate. Id. Despite this overlap, the court found that the General Assembly intended to provide a complementary remedy, not a means of “wiping out all the actual damages which had been sustained by the resident” simply because he ultimately succumb to these injuries. Id. at 531-32. Further, the ONHA specifically notes that the executor of the estate may bring a claim on behalf of a deceased victim of such abuse. Id. at 532-33. This expressed a clear intention to allow such a claim to be brought for both lifetime suffering and funeral expenses, not prohibited by the wrongful death cause of action. Id. at 533.