On May 20, 2023, the Minnesota legislature amended Minnesota’s Survival of Claims and Wrongful Death statutes. The amendments extend a potential-defendant’s liability by: (1) allowing trustee-plaintiffs to maintain claims on behalf of a deceased party, that historically could not be brought after death; and (2) allowing trustee-plaintiffs to potentially recover for all damages allegedly suffered by the decedent, not just economic harms stemming from and related to the death of the deceased party.

I. Survival of Claims Statute – Minn. Stat. § 573.01

Previously under Minnesota’s Survival of Claims statute, “[a] cause of action arising out of an injury to the person die[d] with the person in whose favor it exist[ed].” Minn. Stat. § 573.01 (1983). “[I]njury to the person” was not defined in the statute. Lipka v. Minn. Sch. Emps. Ass’n, Local 1980, 537 N.W.2d 624, 629 (Minn. App. 1995), aff’d 550 N.W.2d 618 (Minn. 1996). To determine whether a claim survived or abated, a court assessed the “primary and moving cause of the damages sought”.  Id.  “Injuries that [were] personal to the decedent abate[d] upon death, whereas injuries to the estate’s property interests usually [did] not.” Nelson v. Holland, 776 N.W.2d 446, 449 (Minn. App. 2009).

Minnesota lawmakers have now amended the Survival of Claims statute so that a claim arising from an injury to a person survives the death of any party in accordance with Minnesota’s Wrongful Death statute. Minn. Stat. § 573.01 (2023).  In essence, this amendment opens the door for considerable expansion of the types of recoverable damages under Minnesota’s Wrongful Death statute, repudiating nearly forty years of precedent in Minnesota.

II. Wrongful Death Statute – Minn. Stat. § 573.02

A. Available Actions and Time Limitations

The May 20, 2023 amendment to Minnesota’s Wrongful Death statute did not change the types of claims available under the statute.   A plaintiff acting on behalf of the deceased may bring either a death action or an injury action to attempt to recover damages “for the exclusive benefit of the surviving spouse and next of kin.” Minn. Stat. § 573.02. The type of action available to the trustee-plaintiff turns on whether the purported wrongful actor allegedly: (a) caused the death by a wrongful act or omission; or (b) caused an injury by an act or omission unrelated to the decedent’s death. Minn. Stat. § 573.02 Sub. Div. 1-2 (2023) (describing the death action and injury action respectively). Both actions may be brought within three years after the date of death and must be brought before six years from the wrongful act or omission; however, no such limitations exist for intentional acts constituting murder. Id.

B. Effect of the Amendment

Prior to the amendment, recovery for death action trustee-plaintiffs was limited to “the amount the jury deems fair and just in reference to the [monetary] loss resulting from the death. . . proportionate to the [monetary] loss [separately] suffered by the death.” Minn. Stat. § 573.02 Sub. Div. 1 (1999). Comparatively, an injury action trustee-plaintiff could only maintain an action for the potential recovery of economic or “special” damages “if the decedent might have maintained an action therefor had the decedent lived.” Id. at Sub. Div. 2. Consequently, defendants were exposed to less potential liability as trustee-plaintiffs could only recover for economic damages under the death and injury actions.

After the May 2023 amendments, recovery under the death action was expanded to include “all damages suffered by the decedent resulting from the injury prior to the decedent’s death and the [monetary] loss resulting from the death . . . proportionate to the [monetary] loss [separately] suffered by the death.” Minn. Stat. § 573.02 Sub. Div. 1 (2023) (emphasis added). Similarly, an injury action trustee-plaintiff may now maintain an action and potentially recover “for all damages arising out of such injury if the decedent might have maintained an action therefor had the decedent lived.” Id. at Sub. Div. 2 (emphasis added).

Consequently trustee-plaintiffs bringing either a death action or an injury action may now maintain, and therefore potentially recover from, all claims allegedly caused by defendants including, for example non-economic damages for pain and suffering.  

III. Conclusion

For toxic tort and asbestos defendants, these amendments will enable trustee-plaintiffs to maintain claims that historically could not be brought after the death of the deceased, and opens the door to recovery of non-economic damages in Minnesota for a potentially large pool of claimants. Ultimately, this legislation amplifies the risk of large jury awards in the future and in turn may lead to larger settlements for asbestos and other tort defendants litigating in Minnesota.

Written with the assistance of James Battle, a summer associate in the Husch Blackwell LLP Saint Louis office