Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Pennsylvania
Losing a loved one is emotionally devastating, and no amount of compensation can return that person to you. However, if the death was caused unnecessarily through someone else's negligence, carelessness, or wrongdoing, you may be entitled to seek damages in a wrongful death lawsuit that will help lessen the financial impact of your loss and also hold the responsible party accountable.
Pennsylvania defines a wrongful death as a death "caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another." A wrongful death claim may be filed even if a criminal case is also being filed. The actions that caused the death are the same type of actions you would find in a personal injury claim, but since the person is deceased, the claim to seek compensation for losses related to the fatality must be filed by another party.
Some examples include:
A fatality caused by a drunk driver
A death caused by medical negligence or malpractice
An intentional assault that caused fatal injuries to the victim, such as being shot in a robbery.Who Can File?
Pennsylvania wrongful death lawsuits must be filed by the Personal Representative of the estate of the deceased, often the person named as the Executor in the person's Will. If there was no Will, a loved one may volunteer to be the Personal Representative or the court can appoint someone. If the Personal Representative does not file a wrongful death lawsuit within six months after the death, any beneficiary may file the lawsuit. This suit is not for the representative, who will have to be approved by the courts, but on behalf of all the beneficiaries.
Relatives that qualify as beneficiaries are the surviving spouse, children, and parents of the deceased. To be considered a qualifying beneficiary, survivors must be able to show that they sustained financial damages.What Damages Can Be Claimed?
Damages in a wrongful death claim vary, depending on the circumstances of the case. They may include:
- funeral and burial expenses
- hospital and medical expenses before death
- estate administration expenses
- lost wages and benefits,
- Including amounts the deceased reasonably would have been expected to contribute to the family's support from the date of the accident to the end of the normal life expectancy.
- compensation for the loss of household services, society, and comfort provided by the deceased, including both physical comforts and services and moral guidance, comfort, and support; loss of love, affection, and consortium for the surviving spouse, and loss of guidance, inheritance, moral upbringing, advice, love, and support for the deceased's children.
- compensation for pain and suffering
- punitive damages to punish the defendant if actions were particularly egregious or willful.
Damages like loss of comfort, companionship, and guidance are intended to compensate the surviving family members for their losses, so they are available only to a surviving spouse, children, or parents.
Damages like funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses, and estate administration expenses, however, compensate the estate for costs related to the death, so the personal representative may seek these damages even without a surviving spouse, children, or parents.
There is no cap on the amount of damages for a wrongful death claim, except for punitive damages, which cannot exceed two times the amount of compensatory damages.What are Time Limits for Filing?
Pennsylvania sets a time limit, or "statute of limitations," on wrongful death claims. A wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the date of the deceased person's death or it will not be heard by the court unless some exception applies.What Must Be Proven to Win?
There are several elements that claimants must establish to win their case, including:
Duty of care –The defendant owed your loved one a legal duty of care.
Breach of duty –The defendant failed to uphold his duty of care by acting negligently or carelessly.
Causation – The defendant's negligence caused the person's death.
Damages – Losses were sustained as a result of the death.
To prove these elements, your attorney will interview witnesses and gather evidence such as police reports, medical records, photos and videos, eyewitness and expert testimony, financial records, and work history.
Wrongful death law is highly regulated by a complex body of rules, and the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. To make sure you get the compensation you deserve, it is essential that you enlist the help of an experienced wrongful death attorney as soon as possible to discuss your legal options.