Wrongful Death in Pennsylvania: How the law provides compensation for bereaved family members after the death of a loved one
In the law, we can’t bring back your loved one who died—but we can hold the wrongdoer financially responsible for what they’ve done. To learn more about how a wrongful death lawyer in Pennsylvania can help you, watch this video, or read on below.
A wrongful death action is a type of personal injury action in Pennsylvania in which the deceased person’s family recovers appropriate financial damages to cover the funeral costs, medical bills, estate expenses and their loss of support and loss of consortium. Pennsylvania has a “Wrongful Death Act,” which governs how these cases are brought. We’ll discuss the practicalities of the statute below, but first, for ease of reference, here is Pennsylvania’s statute on wrongful death.
Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act: 42 Pa.C.S. § 8301
- General rule. — An action may be brought, under procedures prescribed by general rules, to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another if no recovery for the same damages claimed in the wrongful death action was obtained by the injured individual during his lifetime and any prior actions for the same injuries are consolidated with the wrongful death claim so as to avoid a duplicate recovery.
- — Except as provided in subsection (d), the right of action created by this section shall exist only for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased, whether or not citizens or residents of this Commonwealth or elsewhere. The damages recovered shall be distributed to the beneficiaries in the proportion they would take the personal estate of the decedent in the case of intestacy and without liability to creditors of the deceased person under the statutes of this Commonwealth.
- Special damages. — In an action brought under subsection (a), the plaintiff shall be entitled to recover, in addition to other damages, damages for reasonable hospital, nursing, medical, funeral expenses and expenses of administration necessitated by reason of injuries causing death.
- Action by personal representative. — If no person is eligible to recover damages under subsection (b), the personal representative of the deceased may bring an action to recover damages for reasonable hospital, nursing, medical, funeral expenses and expenses of administration necessitated by reason of injuries causing death.
Wrongful death claims can be brought in a number of situations, including for car accident victims, victims of negligence by a caretaker or medical facility, medical malpractice, product liability or even intentional murder.
What wrongful death claims provide financial help to grieving families
Of course, for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, lawsuits seem (and are) woefully inadequate. Every lawyer will admit right up front in their initial conversation with you that no one can bring your loved one back. So what can a personal injury lawyer do?
Wrongful death in Pennsylvania gives rise to a range of financial “damages” for a family. Under the statute, these damages include, at a bare minimum, the costs of medical care and funeral costs, along with the costs of administered the deceased individual’s estate.
This law was passed to ensure that insurance compensates your family’s out-of-pocket expenses as a result of your loved one’s unexpected death. This includes their bills that are due to someone else’s negligence, including funeral, burial and medical expenses. This also includes costs to cover the gifts you would have received from this person during their lifetime. How much would they have made over the course of their working life? What value was directly taken from the family?
Your family has a right to payment for your emotional loss
Loved ones can also receive contribution for the loss of services their family member would have performed in their lifetime. A loving mother or father who cares for their children, takes care of housework, cooks and takes kids to and from games and other events is not only showing love—he or she is providing a service that costs money to be replaced.
In addition, spouses, parents and children have a right to pursue damages related to the “loss of consortium.” This refers to a loved one’s rights to pursue compensation for the loss of love and companionship they would have received. Obviously, for most victims of wrongful death, this is the most painful source of loss. Pennsylvania law also allows loved ones to pursue compensation for the emotional and spiritual loss of a loved one as well.
For many families, the full financial impact of someone’s sudden death takes many years to really settle in. It can be years down the line when family members begin to see the full financial toll this loss is taking on them. Wrongful death lawsuits, which must be filed in the first two years after someone’s death in most cases, seek to calculate this number long before it becomes apparent to the victims.
Survival actions: medical bills and pain and suffering
Wrongful death claims are often paired with “survival actions,” a curiously-named claim that lawyers bring to ensure that certain types of medical bills as well as the pain and suffering an individual experienced before death are included in a damages award by the court. In some cases, a family will choose to bring only a wrongful death action, or only a survival action. In most cases, both will be appropriate. Figuring out which to bring will be one of the first conversations you have with a wrongful death attorney.
The survival action statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 8302, rests right next to the wrongful death statue in Pennsylvania’s code. The statute reads, quite simply: “All causes of action or proceedings, real or personal, shall survive the death of the plaintiff or of the defendant, or the death of one or more joint plaintiffs or defendants.” In the old days, at “common law,” someone’s right to sue for their injuries expired when they died. This unjust rule has been abolished, and so their personal injury action “survives” their death. Simply put, when someone passes away, their right to pursue financial settlement belongs to their estate.
Opening an estate for the survival action
Survival action claims are brought by the estate of the person who died. An “estate” is open by the next of kin, who acts as the “executor” or personal representative on behalf of the person who died. This person ensures that the individual’s wishes are carried out, and also has the right of first refusal to bring a wrongful death and survival action claim.
We’ve covered the details of opening an estate in other articles on our site, but for the purposes of understanding how an estate works as part of a survival action or wrongful death claim, all you need to know is that a person’s will typically lays out who their executor will be. This person has the first right of refusal to sit in the driver’s seat, so to speak, of bringing a claim on behalf of the family. They will open probate and receive a short certificate to allow the suit to be filed on behalf of the family.
Who are the beneficiaries?
But the proceeds of a wrongful death or survival claim will go to family members and other beneficiaries of the estate—not just the executor. The Wrongful Death Act quoted above provides that the spouse, children and parents of the individual who passed away are entitled to receive shares of the total award. This can be true even in cases where one or more of these individuals did not originally feel the lawsuit should be brought. The division of a wrongful death settlement is determined by Pennsylvania’s intestate statute, regardless of whether the person who died had a will.
Survival action damages, on the other hand, go to the estate, are taxed as part of the estate, and are distributed pursuant to the provisions of the deceased person’s will (or the intestate statute if there was no will). In other words, even non-family members who are beneficiaries of an estate receive a share of these damages. The proceeds from a survival action will be split among the beneficiaries named in the will.
Determining fault and recovering insurance
One of the most important and complex aspects of a wrongful death case is in determining who bears fault or other economic responsibility for the negligence or other acts that led to someone’s death. Obviously, this can be a difficult process emotionally for someone walking through grief, and one of the most important aspects of hiring an experienced wrongful death attorney is in bringing in someone who is caring, but also capable of being “dispassionate” in their analysis.
Wrongful deaths can be caused by faulty products, by medical malpractice, by car accidents, house fires and the negligence of property owners in how they maintain their property. In some cases, determining who the negligent actor works for may also be relevant. The driver of a work vehicle may be responsible for death—and so may their employer in some situations.
Insurance provides more coverage than you think
Many times, after someone dies, family members are aware that life insurance will pay a benefit as a result. Many people do not realize this is only the first step in settling the outstanding insurance claims. In many cases, the person responsible for the wrongful death is insured. This means that another insurance company you have never had dealings with may have responsibility to pay the damages discussed above.
In the event of a house fire, your house insurance may provide coverage. Where property maintenance or repairs were negligent and caused death, the company that did the repairs may be insured, and the property where the death occurred may be insured. Insurance is how companies protect themselves from the risk of lawsuits and large damage awards. It is important to determine what insurance policies exist and what rights you and your family have under these policies as a result.
In car accident cases, determining who is at fault for the accident is just the first step. A web of insurance laws cover car accidents, and families are often surprised to find out that their own insurance is obligated to provide payment in these situations. As an initial matter, it’s important to know that a policy’s “death benefit” or funeral benefits are not the only funds you’re entitled to as a family.
Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility statute, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1702, provides that car insurance of family members who were not involved in the accident may provide coverage under “stacked” underinsured and uninsured motorist coverage. Whether there is coverage or not depends on a careful reading of the policies in light on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s recent rulings on stacking waivers, but the bottom line is this: your loved one’s insurance, as well as your insurance, may provide more than just “death benefits” under the policies you’ve paid for.
Wrongful death proceeds are exempt from income and inheritance tax. Survival action proceeds are taxed as inheritance at the prevailing inheritance tax rate. Determining whether proceeds are wrongful death proceeds or survival proceeds is tricky. There is a lot of caselaw dedicated to this issue, and depending on the competing interests of beneficiaries, making this determination can be difficult. Ultimately, a court must give its approval to the proposed breakdown and distribution, and the parties, as well as the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, have the right to object to any such proposal.
What if the person who caused the death is someone you love?
Unfortunately, wrongful deaths are sometimes attributable to the negligence of someone you love. It is not uncommon for a husband or wife to make a bad decision on the road and cause the death of a spouse. In other cases, a house fire can be attributed to the negligence of a family member. In these situations, insurance may still provide coverage for the death, and family members may be entitled to reap the benefit of the policy that has been in place for years.
Conclusion: We represent wrongful death victims in Reading, Allentown, Lancaster, York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and beyond
Wrongful death lawsuits can provide an enormous financial settlement in some cases, and provide a grieving family with financial stability after the loss of a bread winner or emotional keystone of a family.
Families robbed of a loved one often struggle with the moral questions surrounding a wrongful death action. We deeply respect that. At Cornerstone Law Firm, our attorneys have walked through bereavement with families in a multitude of circumstances, and we can help determine whether filing a suit is right for your situation. Call us for a completely free consultation to discuss your rights and how we can help your family through grief.