Death of Defendant Limits Recovery of Damages to Insurance Unless Timely Claim to Estate of Decedent
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In Maryland, to facilitate the prompt settlement of decedents’ estates, a person must “present” a claim against an estate within six months after the decedent’s death or two months after the personal representative mails or delivers proper notice of the need to file a claim within two months, whichever comes first. Maryland Code § 8-103(a) of the Estates and Trusts Article (“ET”). In general, if a claimant fails to meet those statutory deadlines, the claim is “forever barred.”
In Nicholas Shanefelter v. James Edward Hood, Jr., No. 1913-2021, Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (January 4, 2023) the Court of Appeals resolved the dispute by recognizing that if the decedent had insurance coverage for the claim, the claimant need not present a timely claim against the estate, as long as the claimant files suit against the estate before the applicable statute of limitations has run. In that event, a judgment against the estate is not limited to the amount of insurance coverage, but the amount of the judgment that is recoverable from the estate is limited to the amount of the policy. In essence, the case becomes an action against the insurance policy.
In this case, the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County employed ET § 8-104(e)(2) to limit the amount recoverable from an estate to the limits of the decedent’s automobile insurance policy.
On December 1, 2018, appellant Nicholas Shanefelter was involved in an automobile accident with the late James Hood, Jr. At the time of the accident, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. insured the car that Hood was driving.
Hood died on August 4, 2019, of causes unrelated to the accident. On September 30, 2019, Hood’s wife opened an estate on his behalf with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County.
On February 20, 2020, Shanefelter filed suit against Hood in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. On March 6, 2020, seven months after Hood’s death, Shanefelter filed a claim against Hood’s estate with the Register of Wills for Anne Arundel County. The claim was untimely.
TRIAL COURT VERDICT
After a two-day trial in October 2021, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Shanefelter and against the estate in the amount of $285,977.69. One week after the verdict, the estate filed a motion and asked the court to limit the amount of the judgment that was recoverable from the estate to the policy limits of $100,000.00. The motion did not expressly assert what the record already showed – i.e., that Shanefelter had failed to present a timely claim under ET § 8-103(a). Shanefelter opposed the estate’s motion, arguing that he had filed a claim against the estate “as soon as he was made aware that Defendant had died” and that the decedent’s insurer, State Farm, “had failed to settle the case in good faith.” Shanefelter did not argue that he had presented a timely claim.
The circuit court granted the estate’s motion in a written order that was docketed on December 3, 2021. The order states, in pertinent part, that the estate’s “liability is limited to Defendant’s liability insurance policy of $100,000.”
In a written order the judgment states, in pertinent part, that “the amount of the judgment that is recoverable from the estate is limited to the amount of the decedent’s liability insurance policy of $100,000.”
In its brief, the estate refuted Shanefelter’s assertion that he had filed a timely claim within the deadlines dictated by § 8-103(a). Citing the Register of Wills’ docket sheet for Shanefelter’s claim, which it attached as an appendix to its brief, the estate demonstrated that Shanefelter did not file his claim until March 6, 2020, more than seven months after Hood’s death on August 4, 2019.
The Court of Appeal concluded that Shanefelter’s contentions had no merit. The tacit premise of the estate’s motion to limit liability, understood by all, including the circuit court, was that Shanefelter had not presented a timely claim and thus that § 8-104(e) limited the amount recoverable from the estate. At most, he said only that he had filed the claim as soon as he knew of the decedent’s death, which is insufficient to satisfy the requirements of § 8-103(a). Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its broad discretion in denying Shanefelter’s Rule 2-535(a) revisory motion.
Because the record includes a copy of the untimely claim that Shanefelter presented more than a month after the statutory deadline had already passed, the Court of Appeal concluded that it was beyond any serious dispute that Shanefelter failed to present a timely claim.
Because of his failure to present a timely claim, Shanefelter could recover, at most, the policy limits of the decedent’s insurance policy
The Maryland statute is not unusual. Since the estate was established before the suit was filed the plaintiff and his lawyers should have known about the death of the defendant and complied with the requirements of the law. The case went to trial. Shanefelter recevied a favorable verdict but, because of the statute, was limited to the limits of the liability policy issued by State Farm and could not take from the estates assets.
(c) 2023 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.
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Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 54 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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