Massachusetts’s Supreme Court holds that wrongful-death claims are derivative.

A derivative claim can be stopped by any defense of the main claim the derivative claim is dependent on. In this Scuba fatality, a release stopped claims by the heirs.

Doherty v. Diving Unlimited International, Inc., 484 Mass. 193, 2020 Mass. LEXIS 134, 140 N.E.3d 394, 2020 WL 949922

State: Massachusetts, Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Plaintiff: Margaret C. Doherty, personal representative

Defendant: Diving Unlimited International, Inc.

Plaintiff Claims: Wrongful Death

Defendant Defenses: Release

Holding: For the Defendant

Year: 2019


Under Massachusetts law, a wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim. That means that the defenses available to stop a lawsuit by the deceased, also work against the survivors of the decedent. In this case, the deceased signed a release prior to his death which stopped the wrongful-death claim of his survivors.


The decedent, who was a certified open-water scuba diver, drowned while participating in a promotional diving equipment event that was sponsored by DUI and held in Gloucester. At this event, where local divers tested DUI’s dry suit, Golbranson was the leader of the dive, overseeing some of the participants.

Prior to participating in the event, the decedent signed two documents. The first was a release from liability which had several subsections that were set forth in all capital letters and underlined, including “effect of agreement,” “assumption of risk,” “full release,” “covenant not to sue,” “indemnity agreement,” and “arbitration.” In capital letters under the subsection titled “effect of agreement,” it said, “Diver gives up valuable rights, including the right to sue for injuries or death.” It also told the decedent to read the agreement carefully and not to sign it “unless or until you understand.” The subsection titled “full release” stated that the decedent “fully release[d] DUI from any liability whatsoever resulting from diving or associated activities,” and the subsection titled “covenant not to sue” stated that the decedent agreed “not to sue DUI for personal injury arising from scuba diving or its associated activities,” and that the decedent’s “heirs or executors may not sue DUI for death arising from scuba diving or its associated activities.”

The decedent also signed an equipment rental agreement which stated, “This agreement is a release of the [decedent’s] rights to sue for injuries or death resulting from the rental and/or use of this equipment. The [decedent] expressly assumes all risks of skin and/or scuba diving related in any way to the rental and/or use of this equipment.”

Golbranson led a group comprised of the decedent and two other divers. During their dive, one of the divers experienced a depleted air supply. Golbranson signaled for the group to surface and to swim back to shore on the surface. Only the decedent resisted, emphasizing his desire to keep diving, thus separating himself from the group that was returning to shore. Shortly thereafter, the decedent surfaced and called for help. The decedent died at the hospital from “scuba drowning after unequal weight belt distribution.”

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

A wrongful-death claim is a statutory claim, created by state legislatures to allow surviving heirs to sue over the death of a loved one who was providing value or benefits to the survivor. In most cases, since there is no duty directed to a survivor, the surviving heirs have limited rights to recover for the loss of a breadwinner in a family, until the wrongful-death statutes were enacted.

In this case, the decedent signed a release and a rental agreement to test the dive equipment. The rental agreement included additional release language.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts determined the sole issue upon review was whether the release signed by the decedent barred the claims of the plaintiff, the heir who had filed the wrongful-death claim.

The decision was simple for the court. A wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim of the wrongful-death statute. That means that a derivative claim does not stand on its own, it only exists because of the main claim. As such, if the main claim, wrongful death is void because of the release, then that claim also stops the derivative claims of the survivors.

Given that the plaintiff does not contest the judge’s determinations that the release from liability and the equipment rental agreement are valid and that those waivers covered Golbranson as an agent of PUI, the only issue before the court is whether the statutory beneficiaries in the action for wrongful death have a right to recover damages that is independent of the decedent’s own cause of action. See G. L. c. 229, §§ 1, 2. In GGNSC, 484 Mass. at, we have resolved that issue: our wrongful death statute creates a derivative right of recovery for the statutory beneficiaries listed in G. L. c. 229, § 1. Therefore, we hold that here, the valid waivers signed by the decedent preclude the plaintiff, as his “executor or personal representative,” from bringing a lawsuit under G. L. c. 229, § 2, for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries.

A wrongful-death claim is a derivative claim under Massachusetts’s law. Therefore, if the release stops the claims of the decedent, it also stops the claims of the heirs.

So Now What?

Although most states have determined that wrongful-death claims are derivative of the main action of the decedent, you want to make sure your release protects you from wrongful death and other claims that are derivative. Language in your release needs to say that the person signing the release as well as his family and heirs cannot sue.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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By Recreation Law    James H. Moss

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