Notice Requirements Complicate Wrongful Death Suit Against Atlanta V.A. Medical Center

As we have discussed in previous posts, filing a legal claim against the state or federal government is not always a straightforward process. Successfully asserting a claim against a governmental body often depends on satisfying requirements set forth in legislation regarding sovereign immunity, and many sovereign immunity waiver statutes impose unexpected notice obligations that, if not fulfilled, preclude legal action. In a recent case, Campeau v. United States, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia addressed whether the plaintiff had complied with several notice provisions provided under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).
Campeau involves the unfortunate death of the plaintiff’s husband on December 7, 2010 as a result of complications from electroconvulsive treatment performed at the Atlanta Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Since the alleged wrongful death occurred at a VA Medical Center, the plaintiff needed to file her lawsuit against the federal government. However, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a), a wrongful death action may not be instituted against the federal government “unless the claimant shall have first presented the claim to the appropriate Federal agency” and pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b), a tort claim is barred unless the aforementioned claim is presented within two years of the time the claim accrues and the action is commenced within six months of the agency’s notice of final determination or inaction. At issue in Campeau was whether the plaintiff had properly complied with the filing requirements under § 2675(a).
In July 2012, an administrative claim form comprehensively setting forth the circumstances of the deceased’s death was submitted by the deceased’s mother as Administrator of his Estate with the decedent’s wife listed as a witness to the claim to the Department of Veterans Affairs. On December of 2012, a virtually identical amended claim form was submitted to correct an error listing the claim amount under personal injury rather than wrongful death. On April 7, 2013, the VA replied and denied the personal injury claims and further stating that the plaintiff’s mother was not the proper party to assert the wrongful death claim under Georgia law and that the wrongful death amended form was otherwise untimely. In response, a Second Amended Complaint form now listing the decedent’s wife as the claimant was submitted to the VA, with attorneys for the estate noting that since the VA did not address the merits of the wife’s wrongful death claim it was “[their] understanding … there has been no final disposition as to [her] claim as there has not been any final agency action regarding that claim and we have not exercised our option to file suit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a).” The VA acknowledged receipt but stated that it would be treated as a new claim. Attorneys for the estate disputed the characterization and, instead, argued that it should be treated as an amendment to the original claim filed in July of 2012.

In resolving this jumble of claim forms and letters, the District Court relied on earlier Eleventh Circuit precedent in holding that the notice and filing requirements under the FTCA are satisfied if “the claimant (1) gives the agency written notice of his or her claim sufficient to enable the agency to investigate and (2) places a value on his or her claim.” See Brown v. United States, 838 F.2d 1157, 1161 (11th Cir. 1988). Although the wife was not the claimant technically listed on the original claim form, the court relied on earlier, related case law allowing successor parties to bring wrongful death actions based on personal injury claim forms submitted by decedents who died during the pendency of their claims, since the claims were based on the same injury in fact. In this case, the court noted that the original claim form and both amended forms were based on the same injury to the decedent, and that the original form gave the VA sufficient notice of facts from which it could conduct an investigation and of the requested value. Thus, according to the court, the claim submitted by the wife was not a new claim, and thus she could maintain her wrongful death action against the federal government.
Although the plaintiff in this case benefited from the court’s decision to not give a hyper-technical construction to the notice requirements under the FTCA, one can clearly see the importance of understanding relevant notice provisions. Indeed, it is preferable to not end up in a position arguing about the timing of amended claim filings and letters, and any person considering filing suit against a state or other government body should get the timely assistance of counsel with experience in governmental liability litigation. If you are considering filing a wrongful death or other tort suit against a the State of Georgia or the U.S. government, the Atlanta personal injury attorneys at The Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have considerable experience with governmental liability litigation. For a free case consultation, click here or call 1-800-487-8669.

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