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Presentment Issue Unwrapped and Resolved by SJC

postIn August of 2008, Steven Gavin died due to a bacterial infection that was allegedly caused by the improper reinsertion of a feeding tube.  Additionally there were allegations of improper monitoring by physicians, nurses, and staff at Tewksbury State Hospital.  Two years after his death, in July of 2010, an attorney representing the estate of Steven Gavin sent a presentment letter to the chief executive officer of the hospital and the Attorney General of Massachusetts alleging that the negligence of the hospital and the staff amounted to a wrongful death.  At the time of the letter, no estate proceedings at commenced in the Probate and Family Court.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts moved to dismiss the case claiming that the Plaintiff’s presentment letter was deficient because it was not sent by an executor/administrator/personal representative of the Estate that had been properly appointed by the court.  The lower court agreed and reasoned that the Plaintiff’s presentment was in fact deficient because at the time the letter was sent, the Plaintiff was not a “claimant” or an executor or administrator with the capacity to commence suit or settle a wrongful death claim.  Plaintiff’s claim was dismissed.

Under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 258 § 4:

A civil action shall not be instituted against a public employer on a claim for damages under this chapter unless the claimant shall have first presented his claim in writing to the executive officer of such public employer within two years after the date upon which the cause of action arose, and such claim shall have been finally denied by such executive officer in writing and sent by certified or registered mail, or as otherwise provided by this section.

The Plaintiff Estate brought its claim to the Court of Appeals which agreed with the lower court decision.  The Plaintiff again appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts which ultimately reversed the Court of Appeals and the trial court’s decision.  The SJC reiterated that the parties never contested that the estate’s presentment met the time requirement, just whether the estate had the capacity to make presentment in the first place.  The Court held that, “We do not find any indication in the language of the act, considered on its own, that in using the term “claimant,” the Legislature intended to address the legal authority of the person making the claim, and in particular that person’s legal authority to file a civil action in court if the claim were administratively denied. Thus, in construing the act, we adopt the ordinary meaning of “claimant” simply as one who asserts a right or demand.”

The court further wrote that with respect to the purpose of the law, protecting the interest of the government, and giving the Commonwealth the opportunity to investigate and settle claims and to prevent future claims through notice to executive officers, this would not be frustrated by allowing the Plaintiff’s suit to go forward as the Commonwealth did receive notice.  The Court held,  “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.  As such, the presentment would not have unfairly “baffled or misled” the “educated public officials” who received and investigated the claim.”

To read more on this case, please read the Estate of Steven Gavin v. Tewksbury State Hospital, which was decided on May 15, 2014 by the Supreme Judicial Court.  You can access this case on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ website by clicking here and searching by party name.  If you believe you have a medical malpractice case, our office can help you. To schedule a free consultation with lawyer Daniel Cappetta, call our office today at (508) 969-9505 or fill out or contact form available on the right side of this page.