No loss could be more devastating than the death of a close family member. The grief can be overwhelming, even as your time is filled planning the funeral and burial services. You may have lost your best friend and closest companion, someone who stuck by your side through thick and thin. Their death, and your loss, should not go unanswered. Pennsylvania law provides family members strong legal options after a loved one’s death, allowing survivors to pursue justice and financial compensation.
How Pennsylvania Law Defines Wrongful Death
Pennsylvania state law allows certain family members the right to pursue legal action after their loved one’s death, when the fatal accident was caused by a “wrongful act,” “neglect,” “unlawful violence” or “negligence” committed by a third party. As we can see, wrongful death claims can involve a wide range of misconduct, from outright homicide to medical malpractice, nursing home neglect to third-party liquor liability.
Who Can File A Claim?
Any form of intentional or unintentional wrongdoing that causes the death of a close loved one can, in theory, give rise to a viable wrongful death lawsuit, but Pennsylvania places strict limitations on who is allowed to file the suit. In accordance with Title 42, Chapter 83 of Pennsylvania’s General Statutes, Section 8301, only the personal representative of the decedent’s estate is allowed to file a wrongful death claim.
Personal representatives are generally appointed according to the decedent’s will. Usually, a trusted spouse or adult child is selected to preside over their loved one’s remaining financial concerns in the wake of their death. When no will has been written, the State’s Courts can appoint a personal representative to handle these matters, along with any viable wrongful death claims. These claims, however, are filed to benefit a select group of the decedent’s close familial relatives:
- personal representative of the decedent’s estate (if no spouse, child or parent exists to secure the damages)
These loved ones need not be residents of Pennsylvania to secure damages in a wrongful death claim filed here. As we can see, Pennsylvania law makes a stark distinction between who can file a wrongful death claim and who can receive the damages secured in a claim. While only the decedent’s estate representative can file the claim itself, any damages recovered will be distributed by the Court to the decedent’s “beneficiaries,” a legal term used primarily in the realm of estate law.
Intestate Succession & Wrongful Death Damages
In many cases, people write wills before they die, describing who should receive their remaining assets and how those assets should be split up. People who fail to draft a will (or draft one improperly), on the other hand, are said to have died “intestate.” As such, their estates come under the rules outlined in each state’s intestacy rules; the assets, to use a more colloquial phrase, go through probate. The state takes over, doling out the decedent’s remaining assets to their surviving spouse, children or parents in line with a strict calculus.
Pennsylvania uses these state-established rules, rather than an individual decedent’s will, to distribute the damages secured in a wrongful death claim. State law accords priority to spouses and children, followed by surviving parents. Perhaps unfortunately, siblings have no right to recover wrongful death damages in Pennsylvania. Here’s how it works, in brief:
- Children and no spouse – children receive all damages
- Spouse and no children or surviving parents – spouse receives all damages
- Spouse and children – spouse receives the first $30,000 of the settlement or jury award, along with half of what remains; children receive remaining damages
- Spouse and parents but no children – spouse receives the first $30,000 of the settlement or jury award, along with half of what remains; parents receive remaining damages
- Parents and no spouse or children – parents receive all damages
In any event, the money cannot be used to reimburse the decedent’s creditors. In short, Pennsylvania law prohibits the damages from a wrongful death claim being used to make good on a person’s debts after their death. The money is for close family members and the estate, no exceptions. You can find a clear overview of Pennsylvania’s intestate succession guidelines at the legal information site NOLO.
Get Answers After a Family Member’s Fatal Accident
A fatal car accident or an accidental death at work is shocking and disorienting, both for close loved ones and family members. Beyond the unavoidable grief that one experiences after a mother, father, husband, wife, son or daughter dies suddenly, there are urgent questions to be answered. “Why?” “How could this have happened?” “Could something have been done to save my loved one’s life?”
Damages: Financial & Emotional Losses
Finding answers to the heartache of an accidental death is a large reason that many families contact our Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys. Compensation is often an afterthought, but in the long run, financial remuneration can become critical for a family. Beyond the emotional difficulties and painful questioning, a family must deal with numerous economic losses and expenses, including:
These are very real damages, forms of loss that can be compensated financially and may be available in a wrongful death lawsuit. Note, however, that Pennsylvania does not allow damages to be pursued when those losses were already compensated by another source during the decedent’s lifetime. Medical expenses, for example, that were covered by an insurance company before a loved one’s death cannot be claimed again.
Nor can two legal actions premised on the same fatal injury or illness be maintained at the same time. All claims arising from the same incident will have to be consolidated before the Court, including any claims filed for wrongful death damages.
Claims To Benefit Loved Ones & The Estate
It should also be clear that all of these damages are not equal. Some, like loss of household services, are intended to compensate family members for what they have lost due to their loved one’s death. As a result, these damages cannot be claimed unless a spouse, child or parent survives to receive the benefit of those damages. Other losses, like medical expenses or funeral bills, become the responsibility of the decedent’s estate, whether or not they are survived by a close family member. Where no spouse, child or parent survives, the estate’s personal representative can still pursue these limited claims.
Pain & Suffering Claims “Survive” Death
Beyond the traditional wrongful death claims we’ve already discussed, Pennsylvania is one of the only jurisdictions to recognize that certain claims for damages should “survive” a person’s death. As established in the State’s “survival statute,” all legal causes of action (legitimate reasons to sue), along with all pending legal proceedings, survive the death of the plaintiff.
In short, the right to sue over negligence is not extinguished with a person’s death. It survives, passing on to the decedent’s estate. This quirk of Pennsylvania state law allows the estate (on behalf of family members) to pursue a set of damages that aren’t available in some other states. In Pennsylvania, a survival action can be filed to recover damages for the pain and suffering experienced by the decedent prior to death.
Pennsylvania’s Statute Of Limitations
Like all states, Pennsylvania has established strict time limits that can prevent family members from pursuing accountability after their loved one’s death. This law, known as the “statute of limitations,” provides the decedent’s estate only two years from the date of death to file a claim for wrongful death damages.
Survival actions are also governed by a similar two-year time limit, but the clock starts ticking earlier, on the date of the decedent’s injury. Although some exceptions exist, most wrongful death claims filed in Pennsylvania will be restricted by this two-year statute of limitations.
Time is of the essence; attempt to file a lawsuit after the statute has run its course and your claim will almost certainly be dismissed. It’s always best practice to contact an experienced wrongful death attorney as soon as you learn that your loved one’s death may have been caused by someone else’s negligence or wrongdoing.
When You Can’t Settle for Less
Marciano & MacAvoy has obtained numerous million dollar settlements in wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of fatal accident victims, including:
To learn more about some of our recent case results, read our VERDICTS AND SETTLEMENTS.
Attorneys With Compassion & A Track Record of Success
An investigation into the facts behind the car accident, slip-and-fall accident or misdiagnosed cancer may uncover the truth about how the accident occurred. If a person or other legal entity is found to have been negligent, your family may find financial relief by filing a wrongful death claim. In many cases, bereaved family members are also entitled to damages to acknowledge intangible losses such as loss of love and companionship.
Our Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys at Marciano & MacAvoy, P.C. have the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to help you and your family cope with the financial aspects of a fatal accident. Our experienced lawyers have helped many next of kin recover compensation after the deaths of loved ones. We respect your need to grieve, but we also hope that you will get qualified legal counsel in a timely manner.