When a loved one dies due to the negligence or wrongdoing of another person, it is a terrible tragedy. In these circumstances, the loss of a loved one can be made more excruciating by the fact that the loss did not have to happen.
Pennsylvania law allows family members and other beneficiaries to seek compensation for the financial repercussions of a loved one's death. These payments, referred to as "damages," help compensate for the burden of unanticipated expenses incurred as a result of the injury or accident, such as medical and funeral costs and income loss.
Spouses, parents, and children of the deceased can also seek compensation for the losses they will face now that their loved one is no longer with them. These include both material and emotional losses, such as the loss of financial support for children's education and moral guidance and affection.
In Pennsylvania, How is the Term "Wrongful Death" Defined?
A "wrongful death" is defined by Pennsylvania law as one "caused by the wrongful act, neglect, unlawful violence, or negligence of another." 42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. § 8301. In other words, wrongful death occurs when a person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity, such as:
- Medical Malpractice: If a vulnerable individual was bedridden and medically fragile, the failure of the at-home health care service to arrive and administer medications on time could result in death.
- An Intentional Act (Including a crime): Our state's wrongful death statute covers criminal acts, such as murder and homicide, as unlawful forms of violence. Consider the scenario in which an innocent person is shot in the crossfire between two individuals. If the victim dies from gunshot wounds, the victim's legal heirs may have a claim for wrongful death against the shooter or shooters.
- Negligence-based Incident: When someone dies as a result of another person's reckless behavior, such as drunk driving, speeding or reckless driving, the close relatives may have a wrongful death claim against the driver at fault.
A wrongful death claim is equivalent to a personal injury claim in which the injured party is no longer able to bring his or her own case to court. Instead, another party must file a claim on behalf of the deceased for wrongful death.
As with other personal injury lawsuits, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of monetary compensation ("damages"), which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent's survivors. This is a significant distinction between a wrongful death lawsuit and a criminal homicide case, in which a conviction may result in jail or prison time, probation, and other sanctions.
Another distinction between criminal prosecutions for homicide and civil lawsuits for wrongful death is that in a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," a very high standard. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability need only be established "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning that it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the decedent's death. However, it is possible for a single act to result in both criminal charges and a claim for wrongful death: A defendant can be sued in civil court for wrongful death while facing criminal charges for the same death.
Who May File a Suit in Pennsylvania for Wrongful Death?
In accordance with 42 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Annotated (PA CSA) §8301, only the deceased person's surviving spouse, children, or parents may file a lawsuit seeking monetary damages for wrongful death.
When there are no beneficiaries who are eligible to take legal action for the decedent's death, the personal representative of the deceased person's estate may file a lawsuit to recover compensation for the financial harm the injury and death caused the estate. The sole purpose of these damages is to restore the estate to its previous financial condition.
For example, the personal representative of the estate can seek reimbursement for the medical bills and funeral costs associated with the injury that caused the decedent's death. In addition, the estate can seek reimbursement for the administration costs caused by the injury and death.
What Types of Damages Are Available in Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Claims?
In a successful wrongful death claim, the court orders the defendant to pay the deceased person's survivors or estate "damages," or the plaintiff's claimed losses. In Pennsylvania, compensation can be awarded for a wide range of losses, including:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Hospital and medical expenses
- Estate administration expenses
- Lost wages and benefits, including amounts the deceased reasonably would have been expected to earn had he or she lived
- Loss of the deceased's household services, comfort, and guidance.
The purpose of damages under Pennsylvania law is to compensate the surviving spouse, children, and/or parents of the deceased for their losses resulting from the death. However, even if there is no surviving spouse, child, or parent, the personal representative may still seek compensation for funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses, and estate administration costs.
How Long Do I Have to File a Claim for Wrongful Death in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania, like other states, has a statute of limitations that sets a deadline for filing wrongful death lawsuits. A wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the date of death in Pennsylvania. If the case is not filed within two years, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it at all. (Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. § 5524).
If you are considering filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Pennsylvania, you should speak with a personal injury lawyer right away. Cases involving wrongful death are frequently complex, so you must give yourself and your attorney ample time to prepare.
The Experienced Wrongful Death Attorneys at Brandon J. Broderick Want to Help You
Brandon J. Broderick has spent decades fighting for the rights of people in Pennsylvania. We have the expertise, experience, and commitment to guide you through the intricate process of filing a wrongful death claim and ensure you receive the compensation you deserve for your tragic loss. To learn more about how we can assist you, please contact us today. We look forward to helping you in any way that we can during this very hard time.