Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Pennsylvania: The Process
Going through the grieving process after losing a loved one can put an emotional and financial strain on any family. In Pennsylvania, families of the deceased have legal options at their disposal to recover compensation from the person or entity responsible for an untimely and wrongful death.
There are two specific types of actions: wrongful death lawsuits and survival actions. A survival action benefits the estate, while a wrongful death lawsuit benefits the surviving beneficiaries. A beneficiary could be a parent, spouse, or child of the deceased. These beneficiaries could recover for their losses, including but not limited to funeral expenses, medical bills, loss of companionship and guidance, loss of services provided, and expected future income. To recover these damages, the wrongful death lawsuit must be filed within two years of the death.
The Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys at Reiff Law Firm have years of experience helping clients obtain their rightful compensation after suffering a death in the family. We can offer you a free initial appointment where you can discuss your case and find out what you may stand to gain through a civil action against those responsible. To schedule today, call our offices at (215) 709-6940.
Determining if You Have a Wrongful Death Claim in Pennsylvania
The first step in your journey toward recovery for your untimely loss is determining whether you have a viable case of wrongful death. In Pennsylvania, the guidelines of a valid wrongful death claim are laid out in 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8301, also known as the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act. According to the statute, wrongful death claims exist where the defendant was negligent, reckless, or intentional in their conduct that ultimately caused the death. These instances of conduct are referred to as “wrongful acts.”
It can be helpful to think of a wrongful act as something that would give rise to a personal injury lawsuit if the deceased had survived their injuries. For instance, if a drunk driver caused an accident that injured the victim, the victim would be able to sue the drunk driver for causing their injuries and recover damages for their harms. Therefore, the beneficiaries of a wrongful death suit against the drunk driver could likely recover for their own harms.
Some other common wrongful act that can lead to liability for a death include medical malpractice, failure to disclose the existence of toxic chemicals on a worksite, and intentional violent crimes. An experienced Pennsylvania wrongful death attorney can listen to your story and help you determine whether the defendant’s conduct might constitute a wrongful act for the purposes of your recovery.
Wrongful Death Lawsuit vs. Survival Action in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act provides two measures of civil recourse in instances of a wrongful death: wrongful death lawsuits and survival actions. Both of these civil actions must show that the defendant was negligently, recklessly, or intentionally responsible for the wrongful death. The existence of an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit does not preclude a survival action, and vice versa. For this reason, many wrongful deaths result in both a wrongful death lawsuit and a survival action being brought simultaneously.
The goal of a wrongful death lawsuit is to compensate the loved ones and family members of the deceased for what they have lost as a result of the defendant’s conduct. Conversely, a survival action is meant to make the deceased’s estate whole. Therefore, the main difference between the two actions is how the damages are calculated and to whom they are awarded. A successful wrongful death lawsuit will provide damages directly to the named beneficiaries in the proportions specified by the court (or settlement).
In a survival action, the damages are awarded directly to the deceased’s estate. Survival actions are subject to various taxes, unlike wrongful death claims, and can be used to pay back estate creditors. Once the estate receives the compensation, the money will be distributed according to the terms of the deceased’s will. If the deceased did not have a valid will, the compensation will go through the probate process. For more information on how the probate works for court-awarded damages in a survival action, speak to a knowledgeable Pennsylvania wrongful death attorney as soon as possible.
The Process of Filing a Wrongful Death Claim in Pennsylvania
Typically, the representative (or “executor”) of the deceased’s estate is the one who files the wrongful death lawsuit or survival action in Pennsylvania. The executor typically has an easier time identifying the potential beneficiaries of the lawsuit. Placing the responsibility with that individual removes a lot of the confusion from the process. The executor can also be a beneficiary to the lawsuit and still serve in their role.
The executor has complete control over the decision to file a survival action to benefit the estate. However, if the executor fails to file a wrongful death lawsuit within six months of the date of death, the ability to file is then opened up to any potential beneficiary. These beneficiaries must still make reasonable efforts to identify and notify all possible beneficiaries to the suit so that they can elect (or decline) to be named in the claim prior to its filing.
Parties that Can Recover in a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuit
By now, you have heard us reference “beneficiaries” quite a bit on this page. But who is eligible to be named as a beneficiary in a wrongful death lawsuit in Pennsylvania?
According to § 8301(b) of the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act, potential beneficiaries of a wrongful death suit include only spouses, children, and parents of the deceased. You can name as many individuals that fit these criteria that survive at the time of the action. Courts typically award more damages where there are more beneficiaries that were harmed by the loss of the deceased, so you should not worry about reducing any possible party’s own recovery.
Additionally, wrongful death filers are required by state law to make reasonable efforts to identify and provide notice to all potential beneficiaries prior to filing. For this reason, you should contact a Pennsylvania wrongful death attorney as soon as possible to leave enough time for a thorough effort in this area.
Calculating Damages for a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Pennsylvania
When a wrongful death lawsuit is successful, the Pennsylvania court will order the defendant to pay “damages” in line with the beneficiaries’ losses. These losses are calculated along a number of different theories and depend on substantially specific factors. These factors may include the deceased’s age, life expectancy, and income level. Estimating what you stand to gain through a wrongful death lawsuit can be difficult without consulting a resourceful Pennsylvania wrongful death attorney.
The total compensation package could include financial losses due to the direct expenses associated with the death, such as funeral expenses, medical treatment costs, and estate administration fees. A wrongful death lawsuit could also recover damages for the beneficiaries’ loss of comfort, guidance, companionship, as well as the benefits from any of the deceased’s expected future income or benefits, such as insurance or pension plans.
You can also recover for loss of services that the deceased provided. Specifically, this typically refers to the deceased’s ability to provide childcare to their family and will be calculated based on the cost of replacing this service. However, this theory may include more than just the cost of replacement childcare. In recent years, Pennsylvania courts have adopted the meaning of “services” to include the harm of “profound emotional and psychological loss suffered” as a result of the wrongful death.
Considering everything above, you likely stand to recover far more than the funeral expenses or insurance benefits that you lost. Talk to one of our dedicated Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyers today to get a better idea of how a wrongful death lawsuit could help you and your family through the grieving process.
Punitive Damages in a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Pennsylvania law also allows beneficiaries to seek punitive damages for a wrongful death in certain cases. Punitive damages fall under an additional theory of compensation that depends on the conduct of the defendant as opposed to the harms suffered by the beneficiaries.
Punitive damages are not available in every case. A jury will only order a defendant to pay punitive damages where the wrongful conduct was particularly reckless, malicious, or heinous. Intentional violent crimes, drunk driving accidents, and situations where a grossly reckless defendant had a significant power advantage over the defendant (e.g., doctor to patient or large employer to employee) may commonly give rise to punitive damages.
Where punitive damages are available, Pennsylvania law caps the total amount according to the rest of the recovery. A wrongful death lawsuit can return punitive damages up to two times the total amount of the rest of the damages. For instance, if the total non-punitive damage calculation is $2 million, the court can award up to $4 million in additional punitive damages. Discuss whether your case warrants an assessment of punitive damages with an experienced Pennsylvania wrongful death attorney before filing your suit or accepting any settlement.
Effect of Other Legal Cases on a Wrongful Death Claim
Wrongful death lawsuits likely will not be influenced by the existence or outcome of a criminal case against the defendant concerning the same events. A criminal case is brought and run by the government and may result in fines or prison time for the defendant, depending on the nature of the misconduct. However, the families will not see any compensation from these fines, so if you are interested in pursuing your own justice for a loved one’s wrongful death, you should speak to our Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyers about your own civil case.
If the defendant is found not guilty in their criminal trial, you should not be discouraged from filing your wrongful death claim. In a criminal case, the prosecution faces a high burden of proof for their case. They must prove that the defendant is guilty of the charges “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is much harder to prove than the burden for a wrongful death claim, which must be proved “by a preponderance of the evidence.” Essentially, to prevail in a wrongful death civil claim, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant was substantially more likely than not responsible for the death. Speak to a qualified Pennsylvania wrongful death attorney if you have any questions about what this burden of proof entails and whether you will be able to meet it in your case.
If the deceased filed a personal injury lawsuit for negligence against the responsible party while still alive and recovered before passing away, a wrongful death lawsuit is still available. However, the recovery available in a wrongful death suit could be reduced proportionally based on how much the deceased (or their estate) had recovered in their personal injury lawsuit.
Statute of Limitations for Filing a Wrongful Death Claim in Pennsylvania
By now, you are well aware of what you stand to gain by filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Pennsylvania. However, your recovery can be jeopardized if you choose to wait too long to file your claim. Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, or the legal time limit for filing a particular claim, requires that all wrongful death claims be filed within two years. This two-year clock starts at the date of the death, rather than the date of the accident that caused the death.
Certain exceptions to the statute of limitations do exist, such as where the wrongful cause of death is not immediately known by the surviving beneficiaries. However, you should not rely on these exceptions as a reason to delay your action. The process of preparing to file a wrongful death claim can be lengthy and complex, particularly in situations where there are multiple beneficiaries or defendants. We strongly recommend that you contact one of our diligent Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys as soon as possible if you believe you may have a case.
Get Started on Your Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Pennsylvania Today
At Reiff Law Firm, our dedicated Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyers believe every potential client deserves to know their rights to pursue recovery. We can offer you a first-time consultation free of charge when you call (215) 709-6940 to schedule.