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Doherty v. Diving Unlimited International, Inc.

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

October 4, 2019, Argued; February 27, 2020, Decided



Lowy, J. Following a fatal scuba diving accident involving the plaintiff's decedent in May 2014, the plaintiff, as personal representative of the decedent's estate, brought a wrongful death action under G. L. c. 229, § 2, against the manufacturer of the “dry suit” that the decedent used on his dive, the individual who supplied the decedent his diving equipment and outfitted him, the company that owned and rented that equipment, and the dive leader, John Golbranson. After the plaintiff had settled with all  [*194]  defendants other than Golbranson, a judge of the Superior Court granted summary judgment [**2]  in his favor based on the release from liability and covenant not to sue that the decedent signed just before his death. The plaintiff appealed, claiming that the statutory beneficiaries have an independent right to a wrongful death action that the decedent could not have waived. We transferred this case from the Appeals Court on our own motion.

As explained in our opinion in GGNSC Admin. Servs., LLC v. Schrader, 484 Mass. 181, 192 (2020) (] GGNSC), released today, we conclude that the beneficiaries of a wrongful death action have rights that are derivative of, rather than independent from, any claim the decedent could have brought for the injuries causing his death. Therefore, the waivers the decedent signed control all claims for his wrongful death. Accordingly, we affirm the grant of summary judgment.

1. ] Background. a. Facts. “In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, we view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Meyer v. Veolia Energy N. Am., 482 Mass. 208, 209, 121 N.E.3d 1221 (2019). Here, where the plaintiff does not contest on appeal the judge's determination that the waivers were valid, or that Golbranson was acting as an agent for Diving Unlimited International, Inc. (DUI), the manufacturer of the dry suit that [**3]  the decedent wore on his dive, we present only the essential facts.

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.

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484 Mass. 193 *; 2020 Mass. LEXIS 134 **; 140 N.E.3d 394; 2020 WL 949922

Margaret C. Doherty, personal representative,1 vs. Diving Unlimited International, Inc., & others.2

Prior History:  [**1]  Essex. Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on May 5, 2015.

The case was heard by Janice W. Howe, J., on a motion for summary judgment.

The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.


diving, waivers, summary judgment, scuba, rental

Torts, Wrongful Death & Survival Actions, Potential Plaintiffs, Civil Procedure, Judgments, Summary Judgment, Evidentiary Considerations, Entitlement as Matter of Law, Appeals, Summary Judgment Review, Standards of Review, Negligence, Gross Negligence, Procedural Matters, Settlements, Releases From Liability