PA Wrongful Death Settlements: Seeking Justice for Loved Ones
Losing a cherished family member in a tragic accident is an experience that can leave an indelible mark on one’s life, bringing both profound sorrow and profound change. When the loss is the result of someone else’s negligence, deliberate actions, or a failure to act responsibly, you may find solace in knowing that Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act provides a legal avenue to seek compensation for the losses you and your family have endured.
It’s important for your attorney to have extensive litigation experience in case your claim must go to trial to be resolved. If your case also involves medical malpractice leading to the death of your loved one, it’s important to choose a firm with wrongful death lawyers who also are medical malpractice lawyers in Pennsylvania with a clear understanding of the intricacies involved in legal medical malpractice and wrongful death claims. Depending on the facts, circumstances, and evidence, it might be possible for you to secure a fair settlement of your wrongful death claim with the help of the experienced wrongful death lawyers in PA at Raynes & Lawn.
The Wrongful Death Act in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania has codified its wrongful death law in 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. Before this law was passed, surviving family members did not have the right to file lawsuits against those who negligently caused their loved one’s deaths. The Legislature recognized that this was unfair and passed the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act to provide surviving family members with the right to recover compensation for the losses the family suffered because of their loved one’s death.
Under this statute, a wrongful death claim can be filed against an individual or entity that was responsible for causing the death of another through negligent or intentional acts or omissions. This law allows certain people to seek compensation when the deceased person did not file a personal injury claim for the same damages before they succumbed to their injuries. If the deceased victim filed a personal injury lawsuit that wasn’t resolved before they died, that case will be consolidated into the wrongful death case.
This law restricts the people who can benefit from a wrongful death claim in Pennsylvania. Under the wrongful death statute, compensation can only be recovered to benefit the following parties:
- The surviving spouse
- Surviving children
- Surviving parents
If compensation is recovered through the wrongful death claim, the money will be distributed to these beneficiaries under the state’s intestacy law. Compensation from a wrongful death claim can’t be accessed by the deceased person’s creditors but must instead be distributed to the beneficiaries according to intestate succession rules.
If none of the above-listed surviving family members remain, the personal representative of the estate can bring the action. In this situation, the personal representative can file a lawsuit to recover compensation for the medical, nursing, hospital, and funeral expenses incurred for the deceased victim. They can also seek compensation for the costs of administering the estate caused by the deceased person’s injuries and death. If the personal representative files a claim on behalf of the estate when no surviving family members with the requisite relationships to the deceased remain, any compensation recovered will be paid into the estate and distributed under the state’s intestacy laws once the expenses have been paid.
Types of Wrongful Death Claims
Wrongful death claims can be filed whenever an individual’s death is caused by the negligent or intentional acts or omissions of another person or entity. Some examples of situations that might give rise to wrongful death claims include the following:
- Car accidents
- Truck accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Medical malpractice
- Birth injuries
- Product liability
- Violent assaults
Because of the many situations in which wrongful death can occur, it’s important to ensure the wrongful death lawyers you consider have experience handling cases with fact patterns similar to yours. For example, a firm that primarily handles motor vehicle accidents but doesn’t have experience representing people in medical malpractice lawsuits might not be the right choice if your loved one’s death resulted because of a doctor’s medical negligence. Instead, in that type of situation, you would likely be better off choosing a firm with a team of hospital malpractice attorneys.
Lawyers for medical lawsuits in Pennsylvania must have a deep level of understanding of complex legal and medical concepts and how they interplay, giving them a strong knowledge base for handling cases in which malpractice leads to a patient’s wrongful death.
Recoverable Damages in Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Cases
When you’re grieving your spouse’s, parent’s, or child’s untimely death, thinking about filing a lawsuit might seem untenable. Money will not replace your loved one or bring them back. However, compensation can help to pay for the losses your family has suffered because of the actions of the defendant. Wrongful death lawsuits can also help by holding the defendant accountable for their conduct.
There are multiple types of damages that might be available in a wrongful death lawsuit. Some of these might include the following:
- Medical, ambulance, and hospital expenses incurred to treat your loved one’s injuries before they died
- Funeral and burial costs
- Costs of administering your loved one’s estate
- The contributions you would have received from the deceased victim throughout their lifetime if they had lived
- The deceased victim’s lost rights to an inheritance
- Emotional losses you have suffered
- Damages for loss of consortium, companionship, and guidance
Many people who lose loved ones because of negligent or intentional acts do not realize the full scope of their financial losses for years. Wrongful death lawsuits can be used to calculate the total value of these losses well before the family members suffer the full impact.
In addition to wrongful death actions, Pennsylvania also provides for survival actions under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302. In many cases, survival actions and wrongful death claims are filed in a combined case. Survival actions allow the plaintiffs to seek compensation for the victim’s medical expenses. They also can be used to recover compensation for the pain and suffering the victim experienced from their injuries until the time they passed away. The wrongful death lawyers in PA at our firm can help you understand whether to file a wrongful death action, a survival action, or both claims.
Survival actions involve all claims that the victim could have filed if they had survived. These claims survive their death. Once they pass away, the right to pursue compensation for the losses the deceased victim suffered rests with their estate. The estate’s personal representative will be responsible for filing a survival action within the required period.
How Is an Estate Opened?
Since a survival action must be brought by the deceased victim’s estate, someone must open the estate. This is typically done by the individual named as the executor in the victim’s will. If no will exists, the person will instead be a personal representative appointed by the probate court. In most cases, the probate court will appoint the deceased victim’s spouse or next of kin to serve as the personal representative. The executor or personal representative has multiple duties to administer the estate, including ensuring that the debts and liabilities are paid, the victim’s wishes are carried out, and the assets are distributed according to the terms of the will or the laws of intestate succession. The executor or personal representative also has the right to file a wrongful death and survival action lawsuit.
To open an estate, the executor or next of kin will typically file the decedent’s will with the probate court. If there isn’t a will, they will file copies of the victim’s death certificate and a request for a personal representative to be appointed. More is involved in opening an estate, but for wrongful death and survival action purposes, the executor or personal representative will have the first right to file a lawsuit on behalf of the family. Once they open the probate estate, they will be given a certificate that allows them to file lawsuits on the estate’s and family’s behalf.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death and Survival Action in PA?
The state limits who can file a wrongful death lawsuit after a loved one dies. Under 231 Pa. Code § 2202, the estate’s personal representative is granted the exclusive right to file a claim for the benefit of those who are entitled to compensation following their loved one’s death. If the deceased victim had a will, they likely named someone to serve as the executor of their estate within the will. If they died without a will, the court will appoint someone to serve as the personal representative. In most cases, probate courts assign the victim’s spouse or next of kin to serve in this role. The representative will be tasked with filing the wrongful death and survival action and distributing any compensation recovered from the case, in addition to other estate administration tasks.
Before filing a wrongful death lawsuit, the personal representative must open the estate and obtain a court order authorizing them to do so. They’ll need to file a petition with the probate court to open the estate and request the court appoint them as the personal representative if there is no will or to authorize the executor to begin administering the estate. If you are named as an executor or would like to serve as your loved one’s personal representative, you should consult an experienced wrongful death attorney at Raynes & Lawn to ensure your paperwork is submitted properly and on time.
There is an exception contained within Rule 2202. If the personal representative of your loved one’s estate fails to file a wrongful death lawsuit within six months of their death, any of the beneficiaries who are entitled to recover compensation can file the wrongful death lawsuit. This person could be your loved one’s spouse, adult child, or parent. This person would then serve as trustee ad litem for the legal action on behalf of everyone who is entitled to share compensation. Once a wrongful death claim has been filed, no one else can file a separate claim for the same victim’s death.
Beneficiaries of Wrongful Death and Survival Actions in Pennsylvania
Under the wrongful death statute, only the decedent’s parents, spouse, and children can recover compensation through a wrongful death action. These family members are entitled to receive a share of the total compensation recovered through the lawsuit even if one or more of them did not want to pursue the action. How the settlement will be divided is determined by the intestacy laws in Pennsylvania even if the decedent had a will.
By contrast, damages from a survival action go to the estate. They are taxed as part of the estate and distributed under the provisions of the decedent’s will. If there isn’t a will, the survival action proceeds will be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. If there is a will, the proceeds from the survival action will be divided between the will beneficiaries, including any who aren’t family members.
Determining liability is one of the most important steps in a wrongful death case. This involves identifying the party or parties who contributed to causing your loved one’s death through negligent or intentional acts. Some cases might involve several liable parties. If you fail to include all potentially liable parties in your lawsuit, you won’t be able to recover full compensation for your losses.
A wrongful death lawyer will carefully examine the evidence to identify each party that contributed to your loved one’s death and the roles they played. For example, in a medical malpractice wrongful death case, the potentially responsible parties might include the following:
- The hospital or medical facility where your loved one was treated
- The doctor who provided the negligent treatment
- Nurses, medical assistants, and others who were involved in treating your loved one
- Pharmacist who negligently filled a prescription
- Anesthesiologist who administered an improper dose of anesthetic
The actions of each party involved must be carefully examined. Your attorney might work with medical experts to determine whether an individual’s actions fell below the expected medical standard of care and caused your loved one’s death.
The parties that might be responsible for paying damages to you will likely have insurance coverage. Your attorney will negotiate with each defendant’s insurance company to try to resolve your case through a fair settlement. If an insurance company makes a settlement offer, your attorney will review it with you and advise you about whether it is fair or if you should instead continue seeking more compensation through continued negotiations or litigation.
Auto Insurance and Wrongful Death Claims
If your loved one’s death happened in a motor vehicle accident, determining who was responsible will be the first step. There are numerous auto insurance laws that apply. An insurance policy’s death benefit is not the only amount to which you might be entitled, however.
Under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1702, a family member who was not involved in a car accident resulting in the death of their loved one might access coverage from their own auto insurance policy through stacking UM/UIM coverage. Your attorney will need to carefully review the language in your policy to determine whether you might have waived your right to stack policies. However, you might be able to access coverage from both your loved one’s insurance and your own policy. In addition, the auto insurance carried by the at-fault driver might also be involved.
Taxes and Wrongful Death Actions
Any compensation received through a wrongful death lawsuit is exempt from inheritance and income taxes. This means the compensation will be paid to the beneficiaries without taxation. By contrast, the proceeds from a survival action are subject to inheritance taxes at the prevailing rate. In cases involving both types of claims, determining which portions should be characterized as wrongful death vs. survival proceeds can be difficult. The court will need to approve the proposed breakdown between the two claims and how they are distributed. The parties and the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue will each have the right to file objections to proposed distributions and how the amounts are allocated.
Proving Wrongful Death
To win your case, your attorney must present evidence to prove each of the wrongful death elements by a preponderance of the evidence. This means that the evidence must demonstrate that your loved one’s death was more likely than not occurred as you have argued. This is a lower standard of proof than what is required in a criminal case. For example, a criminal prosecutor must prove a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. since the burden of proof is lower in a civil wrongful death lawsuit, it is sometimes possible to hold a defendant accountable for their actions in a wrongful death lawsuit even if they are found not guilty in a related criminal case.
To prove your case, you will need to present evidence showing each of the following elements:
- The defendant committed a wrongful act (negligence, intentional conduct, or malpractice
- The defendant’s act violated the standard of care
- The breach of the standard of care caused your loved one’s death
- Your loved one’s death resulted in calculable damages
You must prove each of these elements by a preponderance of the evidence. If you fail to prove one element, you will lose your case even if you prove the others. It’s best to work with a skilled wrongful death lawyer to ensure you gather enough evidence and present your case in a way that meets or exceeds the burden of proof.
What Happens if the Negligent Party is a Family Member?
Some wrongful death cases involve the negligent actions of a family member who caused another family member’s death. For example, the spouse of the victim might have caused a car accident in which the victim was killed by driving negligently. In that type of situation, the insurance company might still provide coverage to compensate you for your losses.
Statute of Limitations
There is a statute of limitations for wrongful death cases. This is a law that limits the time during which a lawsuit can be filed. If you miss the deadline, you won’t be able to pursue compensation for the losses your family has suffered. The wrongful death statute of limitations is found in 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524 and provides that you have two years from the date of your loved one’s death to file a lawsuit.
Survival actions have a slightly different statute of limitations and must be filed within two years of the date your loved one was injured instead of the date they passed away. This means that the deadline for filing a survival action could run out before the deadline for filing a wrongful death case if your loved one survived their injuries for a period before ultimately succumbing.
If you have questions about the statute of limitations and how it might affect your case, you should consult an experienced wrongful death lawyer. In general, it’s best to seek legal help as soon as possible after your loved one’s death rather than waiting until the deadline is imminent.
Consult an Experienced Wrongful Death Lawyer
If your spouse, parent, or child died because of the negligent or intentional actions of someone else, you likely feel overwhelmed with grief. While a lawsuit will never replace your loved one, filing a claim might allow you to hold the responsible party accountable for their conduct and ensure your family receives the compensation they deserve for their losses. The compassionate and knowledgeable attorneys at Raynes & Lawn have advocated for negligence victims and families for decades and can advise you about your options. Call us for a free consultation today at 1-800-535-1797.
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