Fed Court Dismisses Pedestrian Wrongful Death Suit

OCEAN CITY — A wrongful death civil suit filed by the family of a local man struck and killed on Coastal Highway was officially dismissed last week in federal court, but it will likely resurface in Worcester County Circuit Court.

During the October 2017 Endless Summer cruising event, Thomas Lawlor, 57, of Ocean City, was struck by a Maryland State Police (MSP) Ford Explorer operated by Trooper James Price as he crossed the northbound lanes of Coastal Highway at 67th Street and ultimately succumbed to injuries sustained in the collision.

In May, the decedent’s wife, Rennae Lawlor, of Lewes, Del., and her two sons filed suit in U.S. District Court, naming Price, the MSP, the state of Maryland and the town of Ocean City as defendants. However, in June, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting, among other things, the U.S. District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because of the lack of diversity among the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs essentially acknowledged because of the diversity issue, the case should more appropriately be heard in Worcester County Circuit Court and asked the U.S. District Court judge presiding over the case transfer it back to the local level. However, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake last week granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, citing an inability to transfer it to Circuit Court. The plaintiffs can and likely will file the suit in Worcester County Circuit Court although that has not yet happened.

“The motions to dismiss filed by the Maryland state defendants and by the town of Ocean City have been considered, together with the response and replies,” the judge’s order reads. “Because it appears the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this case, and because the court is not aware of any mechanism to transfer this case to the appropriate state court, it is hereby ordered that the motions are granted, the case is dismissed without prejudice and the clerk shall close this case.”

Federal district courts have jurisdiction based on diversity of citizenship when the parties are citizens of different states. In this particular case, the victim, Thomas Lawlor, lived in Ocean City at the time of the incident and his estate was probated in Worcester County. However, his wife Rennae Lawlor, who filed the suit in U.S. District Court, is a resident of Lewes, Del. The defendants in the case, particularly the Maryland State Police and the trooper behind the wheel during the collision, in June filed the motion to dismiss the case because of a lack of diversity among the plaintiffs.

“The plaintiffs bring various state tort claims based on negligence and gross negligence, but no federal claims,” the motion to dismiss reads. “Because there is a lack of complete diversity among the plaintiffs, and because the defendants are protected by immunity, the plaintiffs are not entitled to any relief in this court.”

The defendants’ motion to dismiss asserted while the plaintiffs in the case resided at different times in Delaware and New Jersey, the victim lived in Maryland and his estate was probated in Worcester County, which is why the case should be dismissed.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.