The unexpected death of a loved one is emotionally and financially challenging to the family members who are left behind. If your loved one’s passing was due to the wrongful actions of another, you should speak to an attorney immediately.
Wrongful death laws in Pennsylvania allow surviving family members to take legal action for the loss of a loved one because of someone else’s negligent or intentional acts. Car accidents, medical malpractice, and malicious assaults are common reasons behind many wrongful death claims. Generally, only spouses, children, parents, or the personal representative of a deceased individual may file a claim. Damages in these cases are often quite high and include pecuniary losses, pain and suffering, and possibly punitive damages. How damages awards are divided depends on how many beneficiaries are part of the case, and there might be limits on these awards. You need as much evidence as possible to prove your claims and get compensation.
Schedule a free case review with our wrongful death lawyers by calling The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 709-6940.
Wrongful Death Laws in Philadelphia
Wrongful death laws can be complicated, as various parties and damages are involved. In addition, many wrongful death cases are made up of multiple claims. There are specific statutes that govern how wrongful death cases are handled. Wrongful death claims are encompassed within 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301, while survival actions are governed by 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302.
Other statutes not necessarily specific to wrongful death claims might also play a role, particularly statutes pertaining to damages. Damages may be significant in wrongful death claims, and plaintiffs often encounter caps and limitations. For example, while there is generally no limit on economic losses, potential punitive damages might be available only up to a certain extent.
There are also laws regarding who can file a claim for wrongful death. Typically, a plaintiff must be a family member of the deceased person. Close friends or distant relatives are often unable to file a claim. This issue is discussed in greater detail below.
What is Considered a “Wrongful Death in Philadelphia”?
The term “wrongful death” refers to a death caused by the negligence or misconduct of another individual. Exactly what constitutes a wrongful action tends to vary, but negligence or intentional acts of harm are often at the center of wrongful death cases. You may also hear the term “decedent,” which refers to the person who was killed in the accident.
There are many types of injuries or accidents that can form the basis for a wrongful death claim, including:
- Automotive accidents
- Defective products (product liability)
- Hazardous premises (premises liability)
- Medical malpractice
Intentional acts of harm might also be grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit, but these situations can sometimes be a bit more complicated. Rather than proving the defendant was negligent, plaintiffs must show how the defendant intended to hurt the deceased person. To make the matter more complex, defendants are often criminally charged for their behavior, and civil claims for wrongful death are usually put on hold until criminal proceedings are complete.
Who Can Sue for a Wrongful Death Claim in Philadelphia?
In Pennsylvania, the person filing the wrongful death claim, known as the “claimant,” must be a decedent’s relative or someone appointed as a personal representative of the deceased person’s estate. The claimant might have to prove in court that they have the legal right to seek monetary damages or financial compensation from the person, group, or company responsible for the decedent’s death.
A relative may bring a wrongful death claim for accidental deaths (such as deaths caused by automotive accidents) and criminal acts (such as deaths caused by physical assault). However, only the following immediate family members may bring a wrongful death claim in Pennsylvania:
- Spouse (husband or wife)
If the deceased person had no children, spouse, or surviving parents, the wrongful death claim can be filed by a personal representative of the deceased person’s estate. The personal representative is often named in the deceased person’s will and could be a distant relative, close friend, or even their attorney.
What Monetary Damages are Available for Wrongful Death Claims in Philadelphia?
Part of what makes wrongful death claims so complex is that various damages might be on the table for a whole host of complex reasons. Damages are often rooted in financial losses experienced by both the deceased person and their surviving family. Family members can also claim compensation for their pain, suffering, and other non-economic losses. Punitive damages, although rarely awarded, might be available if the defendant’s behavior was especially shocking.
Wrongful death actions often involve a lot of expenses incurred by both deceased victims and their families. The law regarding wrongful death claims specifically mentions special damages for the costs of funerals, burials, and medical expenses incurred by the deceased person before they passed away. These damages might be quite high, depending on the situation.
For example, if your loved one was in a bad car accident and underwent extensive medical treatment and surgeries and stayed in the hospital for several days or weeks before passing away, the costs related to medical care would be very high.
Families might also claim the economic support of the deceased person. For example, suppose that a plaintiff is suing over the wrongful death of their spouse, who was the primary income earner for their household. The plaintiff, in that case, could claim the value of their deceased spouse’s income as part of their economic damages. Similarly, if the deceased person provided financial assistance (e.g., paying tuition, helping with rent or bills, providing a monthly allowance), you can claim that too.
As anyone who has lost a loved one can tell you, pain and suffering can be immense. In a wrongful death claim, plaintiffs might be compensated for damages related to pain and suffering in addition to other non-economic losses.
Non-economic damages have been a source of contention in Pennsylvania courtrooms in wrongful death cases. The case of Rettger v. UMPC Shadyside, decided in 2010 in the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, shed light on the meaning of “services” provided by a deceased family member.
In this case, the deceased person was the adult son of the plaintiffs, and the defendant argued that the value of lost services more or less amounted to the household chores the deceased person occasionally helped his parents with. The court decided otherwise. The plaintiff’s emotional loss and grief factored heavily into their non-economic damages.
The difference between punitive damages and compensatory damages is that punitive damages are meant to punish defendants. They are not necessarily awarded to make up for a loss experienced by the plaintiff. Punitive damages are hard to prove and rarely available, but when they are, they can be quite considerable.
Punitive damages are based on a much higher degree of negligence, often called gross negligence, that is so extreme that it might shock the conscience. They might also be based on the defendant’s malicious or evil motive.
The limit on punitive damages might depend on the nature of your lawsuit. For example, if your wrongful death claim is based on medical malpractice or is filed against a government entity, there might be heavy restrictions on punitive damages.
Wrongful Death Lawsuits with Multiple Beneficiaries in Philadelphia
As discussed earlier, the beneficiaries of a wrongful death claim include the deceased person’s spouse, children, and parents. When damages are awarded, they are split among these beneficiaries according to intestate inheritance laws. This means that beneficiaries will be compensated as if the compensation were inherited without a will.
If the deceased person had only a spouse, the spouse gets all the compensation. If the deceased person had only children, the children get everything. Similarly, if the deceased person had no kids or spouse, their parents may receive everything.
Things get tricky when there are multiple beneficiaries. Typically, spouses get the biggest share. If the deceased person had a spouse and children, the spouse receives $30,000 off the top in addition to one-half of the remaining total. The children will split the remaining half. The same rule applies when there is a surviving spouse and parents but not kids.
Are There Caps on Wrongful Death Damages in Philadelphia?
Certain damages on wrongful death lawsuits have limitations and caps, while others are unlimited. Economic losses related to costs and expenses incurred by the deceased person and their family are usually unlimited. This means that if you can demonstrate a loss of $50,000, you should be awarded the total amount of that loss. There is no limit on economic damages as long as we have the proof to back them up.
Non-economic damages are also often unlimited unless the case is filed against a government entity. For example, in lawsuits against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, non-economic damages are limited to $250,000 for any plaintiff and $1,000,000 for the entire case.
Proving Wrongful Death in Philadelphia
Evidence in a wrongful death case is unique to the situation, meaning each case might require completely different kinds of evidence. It is best to speak with an attorney about your case to determine what evidence you need, but some evidence tends to occur across many cases.
First and foremost, you need your deceased loved one’s medical records. These records can help you establish what kind of injuries your loved one sustained and the cause of death. We can have these records evaluated by a medical expert. That medical expert may offer an expert opinion in court as to how the deceased person passed away and who is responsible.
Other evidence might include photographs from an accident scene, such as if your loved one were involved in a car accident. If the case involves a defendant who intentionally hurt the deceased person, something like a weapon would be crucial evidence.
Witnesses are extremely important and may help provide a better perspective on the case. An eyewitness is someone who watched the accident or incident that led to your loved one’s passing unfold. Other witnesses might have some personal knowledge relevant to the case.
What is the Time Limit for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim in Philadelphia?
State law requires that you file a wrongful death lawsuit within two years of the date of death in order to preserve your legal claim to compensation. This time limit is known as the “statute of limitations.” Additionally, you may need to take immediate action in order to preserve evidence that supports your wrongful death claim. It is in your best interests to consult with a wrongful death attorney as soon as possible in order to determine what steps must be taken to preserve the evidence and file a claim.
Philadelphia Wrongful Death Claims vs. Survival Actions
In addition to a wrongful death claim, a survival action claim may also be available. While a wrongful death and a survival action claim often stem from the same events, a survival action is a distinct legal concept.
Rather than focusing on the losses of the decedent’s close family members, as a wrongful death action does, a survival action focuses on the losses suffered by the decedent before death. Therefore, damages can include a financial award that the decedent could have sought if not for their death. Typically, the most significant portion of the viable survival action damages stems from the pain and suffering experienced by the decedent due to the fatal injury.
Our Philadelphia Wrongful Death Attorneys Can Help
Arrange a free case review with our wrongful death attorneys at The Reiff Law Firm by calling (215) 709-6940.