What Are the Most Common Causes of Wrongful Death?
While death is part of life, the loss of a close family member is always difficult for families. When the death of a loved one could have been prevented and was caused by another person or entity, the situation can be even more difficult for the surviving family members. The surviving family members may be faced difficult financial circumstances because of the loss of their loved one compounded by the tragedy of what happened and their grief.
Pennsylvania provides a legal right for certain surviving family members to recover compensation when the death of their loved one occurred because of the negligent, reckless, or intentional actions of another person or entity. A wrongful death civil lawsuit may allow families to hold the responsible party accountable for their actions and recover compensation for their economic and non-economic losses.
What Is Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is a term used within a body of civil law called tort law. It refers to a situation in which an individual, company, or another entity engages in negligent, reckless, or intentional conduct that causes someone else to die. While some deaths are not preventable, deaths that result because of the actions of others might form the basis for wrongful death civil lawsuits.
Understanding Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuits
The right to pursue legal action for wrongful death is codified at 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301. This statute provides the right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit for the benefit of surviving family members with the following relationships with the deceased victim:
- Parent or parents
- Child or children
- Surviving spouse
If none of these parties survive the victim, the personal representative of the decedent’s estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant to recover compensation on behalf of the victim’s heirs. In that situation, any money recovered will be paid into the estate and distributed to the heirs under the state’s intestacy laws.
If one or more of the named beneficiaries survive, a lawsuit can be filed to benefit them. In that situation, any money recovered will be paid to the surviving spouse, children, and parents for their economic and non-economic losses, including:
- Loss of the income the victim would have earned and contributed to the family over their expected life span if they had lived
- Loss of the value of the household contributions the victim would have made to the family if they had survived
- Lost inheritance rights
- Pain and suffering the surviving family members have suffered as a result of their loved one’s death
- Loss of companionship, guidance, and support provided by the victim
- Loss of consortium for surviving spouses
Wrongful death damages are not taxable.
Another type of claim called survival action is often filed as a companion to a wrongful death claim. This type of claim is allowed under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302 and can be filed by the personal representative of the estate to recover damages for the losses the deceased victim incurred because of their injury until the time of their death. The damages that might be available through a survival action include the following:
- Medical expenses incurred to treat the victim’s injuries until they died
- Ambulance costs
- The victim’s income losses from the injury until they died
- Funeral and burial costs
- Pain and suffering the victim suffered until they died
Damages from a survival action are paid into the estate and distributed to the victim’s heirs according to intestacy laws.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations for wrongful death is found in 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524. This law sets a deadline for filing a wrongful death lawsuit. In general, the right to pursue legal action against the wrongdoer lasts for two years after the victim’s death. Unlike a personal injury lawsuit, the statute of limitations for wrongful death doesn’t start to run until the date of death instead of the date of injury. This is important in cases in which a victim survives their injuries for a period before finally succumbing to them. For example, if your loved one lived for a few months following their accident before dying from their injuries, the wrongful death statute of limitations would not begin to run on the date of their accident but would instead start to run on the date your loved one’s death.
There are a few exceptions to the statute of limitations. The limitations period will be tolled if the personal representative fails to file a lawsuit to benefit a surviving child when there is no surviving spouse or parent and the child is a minor. In that case, the child’s right to pursue an action would be tolled until the child reaches age 18 and would then last until the child turns 20.
A second exception exists for deaths caused by medical malpractice when the malpractice is not discovered and could not reasonably have been discovered until later. This might happen when a hospital conceals information about the malpractice from the victim’s family. In that case, the right to pursue a lawsuit will be tolled until the discovery date and then last for two years.
The statute of limitations for a survival action runs from the date of injury instead of the date of death, making it important for family members to consult wrongful death law firms as soon as possible following their loved one’s accident. Statute of limitations issues can be complex, and an attorney at Raynes & Lawn can advise you about how they might apply in your case and whether you have the right to pursue wrongful death litigation.
When Will a Case Amount to Wrongful Death?
Not every death will arise to the level of wrongful death. Only cases involving preventable deaths caused by someone else’s negligence, recklessness, or intentional conduct will form the basis of legitimate claims. Here are some examples of the most common causes of wrongful death lawsuits.
1. Car Crashes
Each year, thousands of Pennsylvanians are seriously injured or killed in motor vehicle collisions. In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) reports that an average of 286 people were involved in car accidents each day, resulting in an average of three deaths and 168 injuries every day during that year. In 2020, 1,129 people were killed in Pennsylvania car accidents, and 61,248 were injured.
Many people rely on their vehicles to drive to and from work, complete errands, or go on vacation every day in Pennsylvania. With so many people sharing the roads, it is understandable why the risk of accident involvement exists. Unfortunately, some drivers fail to obey traffic rules and cause accidents by engaging in the following types of behavior:
- Running traffic lights or stop signs
- Drunk driving
- Drugged driving (including while under the influence of certain prescription drugs)
- Distracted driving
- Inattentive driving
- Drowsy driving
- Aggressive driving
- Wrong-way driving
All motorists have a legal duty to drive responsibly to avoid injury and fatality accidents. When a motorist engages in negligent driving and causes a fatal accident, a viable wrongful death claim could arise. In that type of scenario, the driver who engaged in negligence could be sued for wrongful death. The at-fault driver’s insurance company would be responsible for paying damages for the benefit of the surviving spouse, parent, and child of the victim who was killed.
2. Gun Deaths
Preventable shootings have increasingly become an urgent problem in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. Shootings can be accidental or intentional and could form the basis of a wrongful death civil lawsuit in the following types of incidents:
- Mishandling a gun and accidentally shooting someone else
- Playing “Russian roulette” and handing someone a gun with a bullet in the chamber
- Leaving guns out where children can access them
- Providing an unstable person with a gun who then shoots others
- Intentional killings/homicides
In these types of situations, the victim’s family members can pursue civil wrongful death litigation against the defendant at the same time a criminal case against the defendant is pending.
Pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit even though criminal charges are also pending against the defendant increases the chance that the surviving family members can hold the defendant accountable for their actions. Wrongful death lawsuits have a lower required burden of proof, meaning that it might be possible to hold a defendant accountable in a civil lawsuit even if they are found not guilty in a related criminal case.
3. Motorcycle Accidents
Many people enjoy riding on motorcycles because of the sense of unbridled freedom they get from feeling the air rushing past them and taking in the scenery. While motorcycles are common on the streets, highways, and interstates in Pennsylvania, their smaller profiles make them more difficult for other motorists to see. Motorcyclists also are largely unprotected from the physical forces released in collisions, and they have a much greater risk of being killed in accidents than the occupants of other types of motor vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that in 2021, motorcyclists were 24 times more likely to be killed in accidents than the passengers of other types of vehicles.
Some of the common causes of motorcycle accidents and deaths include the following:
- Inattentive driving and failing to see an oncoming motorcyclist when turning left onto a highway (left-turn accidents)
- Failing to check for motorcycles before opening a car door while parked along the side of a street (dooring accidents)
- Crashing into an oncoming motorcyclist when unsafely passing on a two-lane highway (head-on motorcycle collision)
- Failing to check blind spots before switching lanes and colliding with a motorcyclist next to the vehicle
- Rear-end motorcycle collisions while following too closely
- Running a red light and crashing into a motorcyclist traveling through the intersection
- Traveling at unsafe speeds and colliding with a motorcycle
4. Commercial Truck Crashes
Commercial truck drivers must undergo specialized training and obtain commercial driver’s licenses before they can legally operate large trucks. The nation relies on commercial trucks to deliver goods to stores and individuals all over the country, including in Pennsylvania. Truck drivers are under time pressure to deliver goods on time and might sometimes cut corners to meet their delivery schedules.
Trucks are much more difficult to operate than other types of vehicles because of their much larger sizes and weights. They require much greater stopping distances and are harder to turn or drive in inclement weather. Fatal truck accidents can form the basis of wrongful death lawsuits in the following types of situations:
- Inattentive driving
- Drowsy driving
- Failing to brake in time to avoid traffic stopped for a construction zone
- Driving while impaired
- Improper loading and securement
- Failure to properly maintain a truck
- Defective truck parts
- Violating the hours of service rules
5. Medical Malpractice
While most doctors and other healthcare professionals are competent and provide quality care, some do not. Unfortunately, medical malpractice is far more common than most people realize. Johns Hopkins conducted a study of medical errors in 2016 and found that malpractice is the third-leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. According to the researchers, an estimated 250,000 Americans die each year because of medical errors. Many different types of medical errors can cause death and lead to wrongful death litigation, including the following:
- Anesthesia errors
- Drug errors
- Birth injuries
- Delayed diagnosis
- Failure to diagnose
- Failure to treat
- Failure to obtain informed consent
- Failure to review a patient’s medical records
6. Aviation Accidents
While aviation accidents are fairly rare, they can have tragic consequences when they happen. Both private and commercial pilots can be involved in aviation accidents that result in the deaths of multiple passengers and others on the ground. Some of the types of incidents that might result in a wrongful death lawsuit following an aviation accident include the following:
- Inadequately trained pilot or flight staff
- Failure of the maintenance staff to properly repair issues
- Failure to inspect
- Pilot errors
- Air traffic controller errors
- Taking risks while flying
- Mechanical failures
- Defective plane components
7. Workplace Accidents
Dangerous conditions at work can result in fatal accidents. Some businesses fail to provide proper safety gear or to comply with the safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). When workers are killed in a workplace accident, their families can pursue wrongful death workers’ compensation claims to recover death benefits and replace a portion of the income their loved one would have earned if they had lived.
Construction site accidents are also common types of workplace accidents that might result in deaths. In a construction accident, the surviving family members might be able to pursue both a workers’ comp claim with the victim’s employer and a third-party claim against a negligent party that was not employed by the victim’s employer. Many construction sites have multiple subcontractors working on the same site. When an employee of a different subcontractor negligently causes a workplace accident, the victim’s family might have the right to file both a workers’ comp and a third-party wrongful death claim.
8. Defective Products
Defective products can seriously injure or kill people who use them as intended. Products might contain manufacturing defects, design defects, or defective warnings. If someone is killed because of a defective product, their family members might have grounds to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against all of those responsible for placing it on the market. Some examples of potentially dangerous product defects that could lead to wrongful death litigation include the following:
- Defective airbags
- Defective brakes
- Defective shut-off valves
- Defective tires
- Defective wiring
- Unsafe designs
- Drug defects
- Medical device defects
This isn’t an exhaustive list. Many different product defects can result in death. If your loved one died because of a defective product, you should consult a wrongful death law firm.
9. Premises Liability
Property owners and operators in Pennsylvania must promptly correct known hazards and maintain their property in a safe condition to prevent others from suffering foreseeable injuries or death. Property owners owe this legal duty to those who are lawfully present on their property as social guests or as lawfully present visitors for business purposes. Some examples of dangerous conditions that could give rise to a wrongful death lawsuit based on premises liability include the following:
- Failure to maintain stairs and leaving broken railings or steps
- Improper lighting in stairwells
- Failing to provide security in parking lots
- Allowing ice to accumulate on stairs and sidewalks
- Failing to replace torn carpets
- Failing to clean up spills
- Failing to correct structural issues in a building, leading to collapse
- Debris falling from a poorly maintained building
Intentional acts can result in wrongful death lawsuits and liability. In addition to gun deaths, other types of assaults can also result in death, including the following:
- Punching someone so hard they suffer a brain injury and die
- Knocking someone down who strikes their head and dies
- Pushing someone down a flight of stairs
- Pushing someone off of a building
- Stabbing someone
- Breaking someone’s neck while tackling them
- Choking someone to death
- Intentionally striking someone with a car
Any of these types of incidents can result in wrongful death liability as well as criminal prosecution.
Criminal prosecutors must prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a very high burden to meet. As a result, some defendants go unpunished in the criminal justice system. Filing a wrongful death lawsuit against a person who assaulted your loved one and caused their death might allow you to hold them accountable for their actions even if they are found not guilty in criminal court. Pennsylvania allows wrongful death lawsuits to be filed at the same time as criminal cases since criminal and civil lawsuits proceed in different courts under different bodies of law.
Who Pays For a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Some families are reluctant to file a wrongful death lawsuit because of a concern that they will have to pay too much money to retain lawyers. However, most wrongful death law firms work on a contingent-fee basis, which means you will not have to pay anything upfront and will not be responsible for payment until and unless the attorney recovers compensation for you. When you win a wrongful death lawsuit, your attorney will take their fee as a percentage of the total amount awarded. Ultimately, the person who pays for a wrongful death lawsuit will be the defendant who caused your loved one’s death.
Talk to Raynes & Lawn
If you believe your family member’s death was caused by someone else’s negligent or intentional conduct, you should consult an experienced wrongful death lawyer at Raynes & Lawn. We offer free consultations and have 50 years of experience representing negligence victims. Call us today to request a free case evaluation and learn about your rights at 1-800-535-1797.
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