What is the Statute of Limitations on Wrongful Death Cases in Pennsylvania?
Losing a loved one before their time is a tragedy. If you lost a loved one to a truck accident, a severe injury, a deadly workplace accident, poor medical care, or another event, you may be entitled to file a wrongful death suit. Winning one of these lawsuits may entitle you to compensation, including recovering funeral and burial costs, your loved one’s lost paychecks, any lost inheritances, and other damages that can help support your family after your loss. However, you do not have an unlimited amount of time to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Wrongful death claims, along with other personal injury litigation, are governed by Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations. A statute of limitations outlines the deadlines for filing claims in both civil and criminal court. If you are filing a wrongful death lawsuit, it must be filed within two years from the date of the death. It is important to note that it is not the date of the injury. Your loved one could have been hurt in an accident and died months later. The date of the accident has no impact on the deadline to file a wrongful death claim.
Wrongful death lawsuits are often challenging and the plaintiffs are grieving. Our sympathetic Philadelphia wrongful death attorneys have decades of experience handling these delicate matters. For a free consultation and more information on filing, contact the Reiff Law Firm at (215) 709-6940.
You Have Two Years to File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has strict deadlines on every type of case. Both criminal and civil cases carry “statutes of limitations,” which leave only a limited window of time to file any case. For most civil lawsuits, the deadline to file is within two years of the date of injury. In the case of a lost loved one, there are actually two separate legal cases you can file together. The first is a “wrongful death” action to recover financial harm from losing a loved one. The second is a “survival” action, where you sue for any injuries the deceased would have been able to sue for, had they survived the accident. Both of these cases carry the same two-year deadline to file.
The two-year deadline is merely a deadline to file your case. This does not mean that your case needs to be completed by that date, but just that it needs to be filed with a court. You are allowed more time after filing to investigate your claim, trade evidence with the other side, take depositions, and actually try the case in court. Our Allentown wrongful death attorneys can guide you through this process, from filing to completing the case.
The Purpose of Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations
If you file your case too late, you may be blocked from recovery. Statutes of limitations are meant to allow a reasonable time period for filing. Getting your life together after the death of a loved one may be difficult, but the courts assume that there will be a time in the following two years to get in contact with an attorney and file your case. The sooner you contact a lawyer about your case, the more time they will have to investigate and work on it. Much of this can be done in the background while you handle the changes in your life.
There are a number of common-sense reasons why filing deadlines exist. One of the primary reasons is to protect potential defendants from being unfairly sued for conduct that happened years ago. While this might seem unfair to someone who lost a loved one, the fact that relevant evidence is likely unavailable after many years have passed. The lack of evidence or incomplete evidence could hinder a person’s defense or render a plaintiff’s case unwinnable. The statute of limitations is designed to protect both parties.
Another concern would be that the testimony of any witnesses to the injury or accident, especially if they failed to give a statement at the time of the incident, is not reliable. As time goes by, people’s memories fade.
If your case is filed too late, the defendant may be able to raise the statute of limitations as a complete defense. Even if the defendant was negligent and caused your loved one’s death, the court cannot hold them legally accountable if your case is filed too late. The defendant can point to the statute of limitations and block your claims entirely in many cases.
The Statute of Limitations for Personal Injury Cases Does Not Impact a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Claim
Every wrongful death case is unique. Some arise from an accident that results in the immediate death of your loved one. Other cases involve deaths that occur weeks, months, or years after the initial accident. It is not uncommon for an injured person to have grounds for a personal injury claim only to succumb to their injuries while the case was pending or after it was settled.
When this is the situation, there are separate statute of limitations deadlines for each action. It is important to remember, even if the claims arise from the same incident, the deadlines are not the same and have no bearing on each other. For example, if your spouse is injured in a car accident caused by a drunk driver, they have two years to file a personal injury claim. Should they allow the two years to pass without taking any action, their claim will be barred by the statute of limitations. However, if your spouse passes away because of their injuries, you would have two years from the date of their death to file a wrongful death claim. Missing the personal injury deadline does not affect the present case.
Extending the Statute of Limitations in a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuit
In some cases, you may be entitled to an extension. This is usually due to various effects that “toll” or pause the statute of limitations. During a tolling period, the limitations period is paused and resumes again after the cause for tolling has ended. However, the circumstances that justify tolling the statute of limitations are rare.
First, you may be entitled to toll the statute of limitations because of “infancy. If you are under the age of 18 when the cause of action arises, you may be able to pause the clock. However, since there are often others entitled to bring a wrongful death statute, i.e., the other members of the family, this may not help.
If the defendants controlled the evidence that the death was due to their negligence, any attempts to hide the evidence may mean extending the deadline. If the defendant lied to hide the fact that the death was their fault, passing it off as an accident instead, you may be entitled to an extension. This “fraudulent concealment” can occur in a medical malpractice death case if the hospital tells you a different cause of death.
The last potential way to toll the statute of limitations is also most common in medical malpractice cases. Even with no affirmative lie, you may not be able to tell that malpractice caused the death. You can often extend the deadline to begin when you discover the cause of death was malpractice.
Do Not Hesitate to File a Wrongful Death Claim in Pennsylvania
You should always talk to an attorney when you are considering filing a wrongful death suit. Because the statute of limitations can completely block your case, it is vital to file on time. In addition to wanting to ensure your case is heard in court, you want to allow your attorney the time necessary to build your case. Delaying filing your case will cost you precise time. Wrongful death claims offer many challenges, especially if the initial injury occurred months or years before your loved one succumbed to their injuries.
Just like any other personal injury lawsuit, a wrongful death claim or survivor action is only as strong as the available evidence. If you hesitate in contacting an attorney, vital evidence could be lost or our Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys might not be able to find vital witnesses. Furthermore, any witnesses we do contact might not have a firm recollection of the incident.
In situations where the time between the death and the accident is already long, any additional delays make it more challenging to build a compelling case. Whether you believe you have grounds for a wrongful death claim or a survivor’s action, you should contact our Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyers as soon as possible.
Experienced Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawyers That Will Help You
If you lost a loved one to a traumatic accident, talk to an attorney today. The Philadelphia personal injury lawyers at the Reiff Law Firm can help you file your wrongful death lawsuit on time and handle the case from start to finish. For a free consultation with our lawyers, call our law offices today at (215) 709-6940.