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.
Mason v. Gerin Corp., 231 Kan. 718, 647 P.2d 1340 (1982).
This case addresses the following issue:
What are the conditions precedent to bringing a wrongful death claim under Kansas law?
A condition precedent is a legal term for something that must occur before a lawsuit can be filed. Id. at 722. These qualifying conditions must have occurred, or a lawsuit will be dismissed. Id. at 725. In wrongful death claims, the claim is based on a tort committed against the deceased that ultimately results in the death of that individual. Id. at 722. In this case, the court was asked to decide if a valid tort claim that the deceased could bring is a condition precedent to bringing a wrongful death claim. Id. The court concluded that a timely tort claim is necessary to bring a wrongful death claim, and if that tort claim is time-barred, the wrongful death claim fails as a matter of law. Id. at 725.
Plaintiff is the widow of a man that died from leukemia. Id. at 718. Plaintiff contends that her husband contracted the disease as a result of handling benzene. Id. at 719. The benzene was supplied by Defendant, and no warning was given concerning the danger posed by the chemical. Id. The husband was diagnosed with leukemia in 1977 and died in late 1979. Id. Plaintiff filed a wrongful death suit in 1980. Id.
Section 60-1901 grants a cause of action for wrongful death if “the wrongful act or omission of another” causes the death and the deceased “might have maintained the action had he or she lived.” Id. Thus, each wrongful death claim will also have a related tort claim that the deceased could have brought (and the estate of the deceased can bring). Id. at 719-20. The wrongful death claim must be brought within two years of the death, pursuant to its statute of limitations. Id. at 720.
In this case, the husband could have brought a claim against Defendant within two years of his diagnosis of leukemia. Id. at 719. However, this statute of limitations ran before the husband died, time-barring that claim by his estate. Id. Looking at the language of the statute, the court held that “where the injured party could not have bought an action had he lived because the statute of limitations had run” a claim for wrongful death cannot be maintained. Id. at 723.
The court noted that there is certainly a possibility that a person may die years after the wrongful acts of another. Id. at 724. However, the court is bound by the language of the statute, and that language makes clear that a valid claim is a condition precedent to filing a wrongful death suit. Id. When this related tort claim is time-barred, the claim for wrongful death cannot be maintained. Id. Thus, Plaintiff’s claim must be dismissed for lack of the necessary condition precedent. Id. at 725.