Lawsuits Against Public Bodies For Wrongful DeathPortland wrongful death attorneys have faced a blizzard of questions recently surrounding theinterpretation of Oregon’s statutes of limitation relating to wrongful death claims. The courtsthemselves had to recently rule on what it called “the interplay between the statute of limitationsfor lawsuits against public bodies and the statute that keeps alive personal injury claims despite theinjured person’s death.Continuation action claims are those where the claim for injuries continues after the injured personhas died. Such cases can occur, for example, if a pedestrian or cyclist has been hit by a vehicle andgoes into a coma or develops complications that lead to death some time after the accidenthappened. Earlier this year, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the statute of limitations forfiling a wrongful death claim does not affect or allow for an extension to the time limits for filinglawsuits against public bodies in personal injury claims.Where three laws collideThe three main statutes at the center of the ruling are: • ORS 30.075(1), which allows a personal representative of an estate to continue or start a lawsuit against a wrongdoer “if the decedent might have maintained an action, had the decedent lived. • ORS 12.110, which states that the lawsuit must be filed within Oregon’s two year statute of limitations, “or within three years by the personal representative if not commenced prior to death. • ORS 30.275(9). This is a separate statute of limitations relevant to public bodies. This law says the two-year deadline applies regardless of any other statute of limitation.When Portland wrongful death attorneys filed a lawsuit against a public body 14 days after the two-year anniversary of the injury, they argued that ORS 12.110 allows for the extra year, and that thelawsuit should proceed. The Oregon Court of Appeals saw things differently. They ruled that thethree-year deadline for continuation actions is effectively “trumped” by the special law for publicbodies (ORS 30.275(9)).The statute of limitations in a wrongful death lawsuit also states that the claim must be made withintwo years of the injury causing the death; not of the death itself. This has led many people in thepast to miss the claims deadline.Limits have increased...apparentlyWhile the insurance companies and public bodies are sure to fight it tooth and nail, Oregon courtsalso appear to have upheld new legislation in which the limits on the amount of damagesrecoverable have been increased in wrongful death cases. At present, that limit under the OregonTort Claims Act has been set at $500,000, but a recent ruling stated that any amount awarded can bemade to each beneficiary in the case, even if they’re from the same family. In the past, it was
assumed the $500,000 maximum was for any one wrongful death claim against a public body, but ina 2011 case against Tri-Met, a court ordered differently.Miller v. Tri-County Metropolitan DistrictAustin Miller was killed when he was struck by a Tri-Met bus, which is a government agency. Hisparents brought a wrongful death claim against Tri-Met, and the trial court awarded $187,500 toeach beneficiary, for a total award of $375,000. Tri-Met immediately appealed, saying the OregonTort Claims Act limited recoverable damages public bodies can be ordered to pay is $200,000,regardless of how many beneficiaries are bringing claims.The court disagreed with Tri-Met and said when personal representatives (such as Portland wrongfuldeath attorneys) sue on behalf of more than one person, the case is being brought by separatepeople, rather than by the deceased’s estate, and that in the case of multiple claimants, thedamages limitation applies separately to each beneficiary. The court of appeals found that theoriginal trial court did not err in awarding each beneficiary $187,500, and upheld the original ruling.It’s quite clear that Oregon statutes of limitation applying to wrongful death claims are complex, andthis is especially true when making a claim against a public body. They have separate legislation toprotect themselves from massive claims, even in cases of extreme negligence. Proceeding with sucha claim will require the services of a top professional, such as a team of experienced andknowledgeable Portland wrongful death attorneys, who know the relevant laws and can guide youthrough the entire process. It is critically important to contact such an attorney as early as possible,to avoid time running out on perfectly valid and legitimate claims.