Virginia Supreme Court Decision: A Big Victory For Plaintiffs

Last week, the Virignia Supreme Court released its decision in Central Health, Inc. v. Mullins.  The end result is a big victory for plaintiffs in death cases where the cause of death is contested.

The Central Health case resolved a long-standing issue under Virginia law -- whether a plaintiff has the right to submit both a survival action and a wrongful death action to a jury for resolution at the same time.  Plaintiff's lawyers have long advocated for this right in order to prevent the injustice of picking the wrong cause of action to submit to a jury, and losing a case, not because the defendant did not negligently cause harm, but because the wrong cause of action was chosen. 

Until the Central Health decision, a plaintiff's nightmare scenario occurs under the following facts.  The defendant negligently injures a person and everyone agrees that the defendant was indeed negligent in injuring the other person.  The injured person then dies some time after the initial injury.  The plaintiff and defendant disagree whether the defendant's negligence actually caused the injured person to die, or whether the injured person died from some other cause.  Based upon these facts, two different causes of action were available to the plaintiff - (1) a wrongful death claim in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant caused the death of the injured person' or (2) a survival action claim in which the plaintiff alleged that the defendant caused injury to the injured person but did not cause death.  Prior to Central Health, some trial courts were requiring the plaintiff to elect only one of the two claims to submit to a jury.  The injustice arose when the plaintiff elected the wrongful death claim, but lost at trial because the jury felt the defendant negligently injured the injured person but did not cause that person's death; or when the plaintiff elected the survival action claim, but lost at trial because the jury felt the defendant did negligently cause the injured person's death.

In Central Health, the Virginia Supreme Court recognized the right of plaintiffs to submit both claims to the jury, and allow the jury to decide which of the two claims was the right one under the evidence presented.  Under this decision, plaintiffs no longer face the prospect of losing a case where the defendant is admittedly negligent on the grounds that the wrong type of claim was elected.       

Michael J. Shevlin
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Specializing in medical malpractice and serious personal injury cases since 1994.
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