What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Lawsuits in Pennsylvania?
The sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one can be tragic and overwhelming for most people. In some cases, people can die because of the negligent, intentional, or careless conduct of other people or organizations. If your loved one’s death was caused by someone else’s actions in a motor vehicle accident, workplace accident, slip and fall accident, or by other types of negligence such as medical mistakes, you may have the right to pursue compensation through a wrongful death civil lawsuit.
Wrongful death lawsuits allow certain surviving family members to seek compensation for things like their loved one’s final expenses, lost income, and non-economic losses. A wrongful death lawyer in Pennsylvania at Raynes & Lawn can analyze your case and advise you of your rights and legal options. If you win a wrongful death lawsuit, the compensation you receive won’t replace your loved one, but it could help to cover your losses and prevent you from facing financial problems while you grieve.
Pursuing a wrongful death lawsuit against the person or company that caused your loved one’s death may also provide you with a way to hold them accountable for their actions and prevent similar incidents from happening to others in the future. However, you must be aware of the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits in Pennsylvania. If you wait too long to file a claim, you could lose your right to pursue legal remedies for the death of your loved one.
What Is Wrongful Death?
Wrongful death is a legal term in Pennsylvania’s tort law that is used to describe a situation in which someone’s death is caused by the negligent, reckless, or intentional actions of another individual or entity. The state provides a statutory right to certain family members to pursue compensation when they lose a loved one due to wrongful or negligent actions of another.
The wrongful death statute is codified at 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301 and provides the right to sue for surviving family members when the victim’s death is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, violence, or negligence of another. By filing a wrongful death lawsuit, family members can recover damages to compensate them for their losses.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania restricts who can file a wrongful death lawsuit. To file a lawsuit for your loved one’s death, you must be the surviving spouse, child, or parent of the victim. Other relatives do not have the right to sue for wrongful death.
If the victim didn’t leave behind a surviving spouse, parent, or child, the personal representative of their estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit. The personal representative of an estate is either the executor named in the deceased victim’s will or a representative appointed by the court to administer the estate if no will was written. In many cases, an estate representative will be a close family member of the victim who volunteers to handle the victim’s final affairs.
If the personal representative pursues a wrongful death claim and recovers compensation, the money will be paid into the estate. The compensation will then be distributed to the victim’s heirs according to Pennsylvania’s intestacy laws.
What Is a Statute of Limitations?
All states, including Pennsylvania, have statutes of limitations to control when a legal claim can be filed. Each state has different statutes of limitations for different types of legal cases. For example, Pennsylvania has different statutes of limitations for criminal cases and civil cases, and there are also varying limitation periods for different types of crimes and civil lawsuits.
These laws are meant to prevent legal claims from being filed when they are too old to properly investigate, prosecute, and defend. If you wait until after the statute of limitations has passed to file a lawsuit, your claim will be time-barred. This means the defendant will file a motion to dismiss, and the court will grant it. You won’t be able to pursue compensation for your loved one’s death if you wait until the statute of limitations has expired.
The Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania’s wrongful death statute of limitations is found at 42 Pa.C.S. § 5524(2). It provides a two-year deadline for filing a wrongful death lawsuit for your loved one’s death. This limitation period begins to run from the time of your loved one’s death instead of the date of their injury. This means that if your loved one was injured and survived for several weeks or months before succumbing, your deadline will be two years after the date of their death instead of their accident. When the accident occurred will have no bearing on the deadline for your claim.
When your loved one dies, you might have the right to file two different types of legal claims, including a wrongful death claim and a survival action. These types of claims are typically filed together. A wrongful death lawsuit allows you to recover damages for the losses your family has suffered as a result of the death of your loved one. A survival action survives the death of your loved one and includes the damages your loved one could have pursued if they had survived and filed a personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuit. Both wrongful death lawsuits and survival actions have a two-year statute of limitations, but when the clock begins ticking between the two differs.
The two-year limitation period serves as a deadline for filing your case in court. It doesn’t mean that your case must be finished within two years. Once you file your claim, you will be given time to fully investigate your case, exchange evidence with the other party, depose witnesses, negotiate a possible settlement, and take your case to trial. Since the process can be long and confusing, it’s best to work with an experienced wrongful death lawyer in Philadelphia throughout the process who can explain your rights and keep you apprised of everything that happens.
Why Does Pennsylvania Have a Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Death Lawsuits?
If you fail to file your lawsuit before the deadline, you could be prevented from recovering compensation for the death of your loved one. The wrongful death statute of limitations in Pennsylvania is meant to provide a reasonable time frame for filing a lawsuit. While it can be difficult to get your life back on track after losing a parent, child, or spouse, Pennsylvania courts assume that you should have time within two years of your loved one’s death to speak to an attorney and file a lawsuit. While two years might sound like a long time, it can go quickly when you are dealing with the aftermath of your loss and all of the changes in your life.
There are several reasons why Pennsylvania and other states set deadlines for wrongful death claims. One of the main reasons is to protect people from unfair lawsuits for something that occurred years before. While this might not seem fair to you when you have lost your loved one, relevant evidence can be lost over time. It can be difficult for someone to defend against a wrongful death lawsuit if critical evidence has been lost. Similarly, trying to prosecute a wrongful death claim can be nearly impossible for plaintiffs when evidence is missing or incomplete. Setting a statute of limitations helps to protect the legal rights of both potential plaintiffs and defendants.
Another reason why Pennsylvania has a statute of limitations is that witnesses who saw what occurred might move away or forget important details after many years. If a witness didn’t give a statement when the incident occurred, later-provided statements will be unreliable since their memories will fade.
The defendant can raise the statute of limitations as a complete defense to a late-filed wrongful death lawsuit. This means that you won’t be able to hold the defendant accountable for your loved one’s death if you filed your lawsuit too late. Instead, your case could be blocked, leaving you without legal recourse for your losses.
Personal Injury vs. Wrongful Death Statutes of Limitation
The personal injury statute of limitations in Pennsylvania is also found in 42 Pa.C.S. 5524(2). Under this statute, the limitation period begins running from the date of a person’s injury or the date when a person reasonably should have discovered that they were injured because of someone else’s actions. By contrast, the wrongful death statute of limitations begins to run from the date of the individual’s death. This means that the personal injury statute of limitations could run out before the wrongful death statute of limitations.
In some cases, a person might be killed immediately in an accident. In others, they might not die from their injuries for several weeks, months, or even years after the incident. It is fairly common for someone to have a viable personal injury case and die before they ever have a chance to file. In other cases, someone might file a personal injury claim and pass away before it is settled.
For example, if a person suffers serious injuries because of the negligent actions of a drunk driver, they will have two years to file a lawsuit against the driver who caused the accident and injuries. However, if the person doesn’t file a lawsuit within two years of the accident, their claim will be time-barred. If that person then dies from their injuries, their surviving spouse will have two years following their death to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The fact that the victim missed the personal injury statute of limitations will not affect the spouse’s right to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit.
The Discovery Rule and Its Impact on the Statute of Limitations
There are some situations in which the negligence of the person who caused your loved one’s death might not reasonably be discovered until the two-year limitation period has passed. When that happens, the discovery rule might apply.
Under the discovery rule, the deadline to file a wrongful death lawsuit might be extended when the cause of death could not reasonably have been discovered before the expiration of the statute of limitations. However, this rule will not apply to all cases. It can be difficult to prove that you couldn’t have discovered the cause of your loved one’s death with reasonable diligence for more than two years following their death.
A couple of examples when the discovery rule might come into play include the following:
- The individual responsible for your loved one’s death can’t be determined until a lengthy investigation has been completed.
- Your loved one was missing for some time before their body was discovered, making it difficult to determine the cause and time of death.
- The at-fault party took steps to fraudulently conceal the cause of your loved one’s death to prevent discovery.
- The coroner attributed your loved one’s death to natural causes or suicide, which you later learn was erroneous with the help of an investigator and an independent medical examiner.
As you can see, the discovery rule doesn’t come into play in many wrongful death cases. However, in certain circumstances, it might be available to extend the deadline for filing a lawsuit. A skilled wrongful death lawyer in Pennsylvania can help you understand the statute of limitations that applies in your case and whether the discovery rule might allow you to file a lawsuit outside of two years.
Tolling of the Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations in Pennsylvania
In addition to the discovery rule, there are a couple of other circumstances that could toll the statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit. Tolling means that the deadline clock will not begin to run until a future date. When the tolling period is over, the clock will start to run and end two years later. However, circumstances justifying the tolling of the statute of limitations are fairly rare.
One situation that could toll the clock that might occur is if your loved one’s death happened while you were a minor. For example, if your parents were killed in an accident caused by an intoxicated driver when you were 12, and a wrongful death lawsuit was not filed by either of your parents’ parents, the deadline clock would be tolled until you turn 18. You would then have two years to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the at-fault driver whose actions killed your parents.
Attempts to hide the evidence by a defendant extend the deadline for filing a wrongful death lawsuit when the defendant has control of the evidence and fails to provide it. This might happen in a medical malpractice case when the hospital provides the wrong cause of death and hides the malpractice of its employee to prevent you from pursuing litigation. Fraudulent concealment will not allow a defendant to evade potential legal action by waiting for the deadline to run out.
Another situation that can toll the statute of limitations is mental incompetence. You must be legally competent to file a lawsuit. For example, if you and your spouse were in a terrible accident, and you were left in a coma while your spouse was killed, the wrongful death statute of limitations would be tolled until you regained consciousness and were restored to competence. You would then have two years to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the party that caused your loved one’s death and your injuries.
Understanding Survival Actions
Survival actions are allowed under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302. A survival action can be filed when a deceased victim survives their initial injuries for some period before succumbing to them. In that situation, the victim’s personal injury rights survive their death. For example, if your loved one survived their accident for three months before ultimately dying from their injuries, you could file a wrongful death claim and a survival action.
A survival action might allow you to recover the following types of losses:
- Your loved one’s medical expenses
- Your loved one’s lost income
- Property losses
- Physical pain and suffering your loved one experienced
- Your loved one’s emotional distress
- Your loved one’s reduction in the quality of life
- Other non-economic damages suffered by your loved one
Through your wrongful death lawsuit, you can seek to recover compensation for the following losses you have suffered:
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Loss of the income and contributions your loved one would have earned and made if they had lived
- Lost inheritance rights
- Emotional distress you have suffered because of your loved one’s death
- Loss of consortium/guidance
One thing to keep in mind is that the statute of limitations for a survival action is the same as the personal injury statute of limitations, which means it runs from the date your loved one’s accident occurred rather than the date of their death.
Statute of limitations issues can be complex in wrongful death and survival actions. If you think you have grounds to pursue a claim but are concerned about the statute of limitations, you should speak to a wrongful death lawyer in Pennsylvania as soon as possible. An attorney can examine the facts and explain how the statute of limitations applies in your case and whether you have the right to file a lawsuit for your loved one’s death.
When Should You Talk to an Attorney?
While you might believe you have plenty of time to talk to an attorney about a potential wrongful death and survival lawsuit following your loved one’s death, time can quickly get away from you when you are dealing with the disruptions to your life.
The best approach is to consult an experienced attorney as soon as possible after your loved one’s death or upon discovering that it was caused by someone else’s negligent or wrongful conduct. When you get legal representation quickly, your attorney will have more time to thoroughly investigate your case, preserve critical evidence before it can be lost, interview witnesses, and build the strongest possible claim for you. This can make it much likelier you will secure more compensation than if you wait until you are close to the deadline to speak to a lawyer.
How Can a Wrongful Death Lawyer Help?
While you are not required to hire a wrongful death attorney to represent you, doing so greatly increases the chances that your claim will be successful. Navigating complex statutes of limitations issues, civil court procedures, discovery rules, and other aspects of a wrongful death case without legal help can be difficult even if you do have some legal knowledge. It can be even harder when you are also dealing with your grief.
A wrongful death attorney can help you in many ways, including the following:
- Investigate your claim and gather crucial evidence
- Determine liability
- Identify potential defenses and work to counter them
- Provide legal advice and guidance
- Meet the statute of limitations
- Follow procedural rules
- Negotiate with the at-fault party to try to secure a fair settlement agreement
- Explain the process as your claim unfolds
- Handle all of the communication and documents for you so you can focus on other aspects of your life
- Fight for your legal interests and rights
- Take your case to trial if necessary
Speak to Raynes & Lawn
If your loved one’s death was caused by someone else’s actions, you should reach out to the compassionate and knowledgeable wrongful death lawyers in Pennsylvania at Raynes & Lawn. We have more than 50 years of experience representing families and negligence victims and have recovered tens of billions of dollars. While money can never replace your family member, a wrongful death claim might help to right some wrongs and allow you to hold the responsible party accountable. Call us for a free consultation to learn about your options at (800) 535-1797.
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