Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, said he believes lawmakers should periodically revisit the cap on damages under Maine’s Wrongful Death Act. Now, that will happen automatically, with new changes to the law raising the current $750,000 cap each year based on inflation. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, file

New changes to Maine’s wrongful death law will increase the cap on damages in accordance with the annual inflation rate and expand the window of time Mainers have to sue.

Gov. Janet Mills allowed the law to take effect Thursday without her signature. It raises the current $750,000 cap on noneconomic damages in wrongful death claims each year based on the inflation rate, starting with deaths that occur in 2024. It also raises the cap on punitive damages from $250,000 to $500,000, and it increased the time frame for families to sue from two to three years.

Maine’s Wrongful Death Act allows people to file a civil complaint against another person or entity for any deaths that occur because of another person’s error. It’s been used to sue hospitals and other health care providers, employers, and drivers after fatal car crashes.

Mills’ office did not respond to questions about why she did not sign the bill.

The law that was approved by lawmakers was a pared-down version of the original proposal, which would have increased the cap to $1.5 million. A separate bill that would have changed the statute of limitations in medical negligence cases – a separate law from the Wrongful Death Act – failed to pass the House.

Rep. Matt Moonen, D-Portland, who introduced the wrongful death bill, said in April that he believes lawmakers should revisit the damage cap periodically. Moonen also introduced the bill that raised the cap from $500,000 in 2019.


“The challenge is how to calculate what is fair compensation for the loss of a loved one, especially when the passing is unexpected, tragic and due to the negligence or misconduct of another,” Moonen testified in April. “This is why we rely on judges and juries to listen to the specific details of a particular case and come to the verdict that they believe does justice for that particular case.”

Moonen didn’t respond to a message Thursday seeking his reaction to the bill’s passage.


Karen McKenna of Yarmouth told lawmakers in April that when her husband, James Thompson, died in a workplace accident in 2020, she struggled most with the “nonmaterial ways” she missed him; she had lost someone to watch her favorite shows with, someone who would remind her it was time for bed when she was starting to fall asleep on the couch.

“The person I lost was my husband. He was my soulmate, my best friend, my life partner,” McKenna said in an interview Thursday.

Grieving was expensive – McKenna said she had to take time off from work. She eventually filed a wrongful death suit.


“It’s not that there’s a dollar amount for your loved one, but your life is so altered,” McKenna said. “And your ability to function is so altered. No amount of money takes away the pain, but does take away some of the terror of knowing if you’re going to keep your house, or if your power is going to get turned off.”

McKenna and her attorney argued that raising the cap makes the law more equitable.

While wealthier families are able to recover a higher amount in lost wages depending on how much their loved one earned – those types of economic damages aren’t capped under the law – such awards are typically lower for lower-income families.

“If you were suing for lost wages or something, then someone who made six figures is somehow worth more than your loved one who didn’t,” McKenna said.

Raising the cap for noneconomic damages helps even the field, she said. So families like hers could get help covering those intangible costs.

“Their lives still had so much value. I think it shows a little more respect for that as well,” McKenna said.


Advocates for insurance companies, which cover most of the costs of wrongful death lawsuits, opposed raising the cap.

“I think this is an overly aggressive step forward,” Bruce Gerrity, an attorney for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, said Thursday. “Frankly, I think that the recovery (amount) authorized under the statute was more than appropriate.”


Those advocates had the same concern about L.D. 549, which sought to move the start of a three-year statute of limitations for medical negligence cases from the point of negligence to the point when it is discovered.

That bill, which only would have covered medical cases, died in the House on June 23 after a divided report from the Judiciary Committee.

It could have helped someone like Robyn Barnes, who in 2019, a year after losing her father to bladder cancer, was prepared to sue for medical negligence. But even though she could prove a pathologist failed to diagnose her father in 2015 before the cancer had spread to his bones, she was unable to sue because of Maine’s statute of limitations.

The health care industry argued the law ensures that defendants have access to timely records and potential witnesses.

Barnes said Thursday that she was disappointed the bill didn’t move forward, but she was emboldened by the support she received after testifying. She hopes the legislation will come up in the next session.

“If they want to move forward with this again, I am all in, and I will continue to be all in as long as I feel it’s helpful in some way and my dad’s story could make a difference,” Barnes said.

“My mother lost her husband, I lost my father, my children lost their grandfather,” she added. “This is not a number, this is a life.”

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