A wrongful death is one that was preventable and results from the negligent, reckless, or unlawful actions or omissions of another person or entity. There are a number of different types of accidents or events in which a wrongful death may occur, such as motor vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, swimming pool accidents, and many others. When someone loses a loved one in an untimely death that was caused by another party, they may be able to file a lawsuit against the responsible party for monetary damages.
Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Laws
The state of Pennsylvania defines wrongful death as a death that is “caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another” (Title 42, Chapter 83 of the Pennsylvania General Statutes, Section 8301). It is important to note that a wrongful death may or may not result from a criminal act, and a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action that is completely separate from any criminal charge that may result from the act that caused the death.
A criminal charge is brought by the state if they believe there is enough evidence to convict, and the penalties typically include fines and jail time, and in some cases (such as a fatal DUI accident), the loss of driving privileges. Although a surviving family member may feel some sense of satisfaction and closure if the person responsible for their loved one’s death is convicted, a criminal conviction does nothing to compensate the surviving loved ones for the deep loss that they have suffered. Monetary compensation must be recovered through a wrongful death civil lawsuit.
Although no amount of money can ever make up for the loss of someone close to you, the best legal remedy the system can provide is a monetary damage award. Damages can be recovered for losses suffered by survivors because of their loved one’s death, such as the loss of comfort, care, guidance, and support that the decedent provided as well as the emotional and psychological loss that family members suffered after losing someone close to them.
Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death Action in Pennsylvania?
A wrongful death claim is filed by the personal representative of the decedent’s estate on behalf of the decedent’s beneficiaries. If the personal representative does not bring the lawsuit within six months after the decedent’s death, then a claim can be filed by any of the beneficiaries on behalf of all beneficiaries.
Pennsylvania law specifies that only spouses, children, and parents of the decedent can qualify as beneficiaries. The allocation of damage proceeds is determined by the state’s intestacy law, which is generally as follows:
- When there is a surviving spouse and surviving children, the spouse receives the first $30,000 in proceeds, and the remaining amount is split evenly between the spouse and the children.
- If there are surviving children of the decedent one or more of whom are not issue of the surviving spouse, one-half of the intestate estate to the children and one-half to the surviving spouse.
- When there are no surviving children and a surviving spouse, then the remaining proceeds (after the first 30,000) are split evenly between the spouse and the surviving parent(s).
- When there is no surviving spouse, then the proceeds are split evenly among the surviving children. If there is no surviving spouse or surviving children, then all of the proceeds go to the surviving parent(s).
- If an individual dies without any surviving spouse, children, or parents, then no wrongful death claim can be brought on their behalf in Pennsylvania.
Wrongful Death Actions vs. Survival Actions in Pennsylvania
A survival action is one that is brought separately from a wrongful death claim, and in many cases, the two are brought simultaneously. A survival action is a slightly different type of legal action, and it can only be brought by the personal representative of the decedent’s estate.
While a wrongful death claim deals with the losses that have been suffered by surviving family members, a survival claim deals more with the losses that the decedent would have personally sustained had he/she survived the accident or event that caused their death.
The best way to look at a survival action is as a personal injury claim in which the decedent’s estate is standing in the shoes of the decedent. The damages recoverable from a survival claim will be for losses such as medical expenses (to treat the injuries or illness that led to the death while the decedent was still alive), past and future lost earnings, and the decedent’s pain and suffering.
The decedent’s estate is the sole beneficiary of the proceeds from a survival action, and they pass through probate like the rest of the estate. If the decedent died with a will, the proceeds are used to cover any final expenses, then the remaining amount is distributed according to the terms and conditions of the will. In the absence of a will, remaining proceeds (after final expenses are covered) are distributed according to Pennsylvania intestacy laws.
Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawyer
If you lost someone close to you and the death was the fault of another party, you may have a valid wrongful death claim. At Caroselli, Beachler & Coleman, we offer our condolences for your loss, and we understand that this was a very tough time for you. We would also caution, however, not to wait too long before addressing the legal aspects of your loved one’s death. Pennsylvania has a statute of limitations of two years from the date of death to file wrongful death and survival claims, and the longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes to gather the important facts and pieces of evidence necessary to substantiate your claim.
At your earliest convenience, we invite you to contact our office for a free, no obligation consultation. We will meet with you (either in person or remotely depending on what you are comfortable with in the midst of COVID-19) to thoroughly assess your case and advise you of your legal rights and options. This way, you can make the most informed decision on whether or not you should bring a wrongful death claim on behalf of your deceased loved one.
Message us online or call our office today at 412-567-1232 or toll-free at 866-466-5789 to schedule your complimentary consultation and case assessment. We look forward to serving you!