Losing a friend or relative is never easy, but it is especially challenging when that death happens suddenly in an accident. In an instant, your family is left grieving and wondering how to move forward.
Pennsylvania law permits specific individuals to file claims for compensation against any parties responsible for a loved one’s wrongful death. Although you may not be thinking about lawyers, insurance claims, and finances in the aftermath of an unanticipated loss of a loved one, you may nonetheless benefit from having a strong legal advocate.
Wrongful death cases may be complex and involve multiple defendants. By retaining the services of a seasoned personal injury lawyer, you may be able to begin the process of achieving closure following the death of a loved one.
What is the Difference Between Wrongful Death and Survival Actions in Western PA?
Family members of the deceased may be able to seek damages arising from an accident through two different legal mechanisms: wrongful death claims and survival actions. First, the administrator of the estate of the deceased person, who typically is a close family member, may file a wrongful death claim on behalf of the beneficiaries of the estate of the deceased. In this situation, the deceased person either left a will naming an estate executor, or the court will appoint an eligible person to serve as administrator.
Essentially, if the personal representative does not file a claim within six months of the death, any beneficiary of the estate may then file a claim on behalf of all of the beneficiaries. A wrongful death claim is based on the losses of the decedent’s immediate family members, such as lost income and support for surviving spouses, children, and parents.
Pennsylvania law, 42 Pa. C.S. 8301, also authorizes the estate administrator to file a survival action against any negligent parties who caused the untimely death of the accident victim. In a survival action, the estate is seeking compensation for the losses that the decedent would have been entitled to had he/she survived. This includes pain and suffering from the moment of impact until the decedent’s death.
The Intersection of Civil and Criminal Charges
Depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, there may be criminal charges filed by the government as well. However, a wrongful death claim is a civil case that is distinct from the criminal case.
Because the burden of proof is lower in civil court than in criminal court, you may be able to recover financial compensation even if the person responsible for the death is acquitted of criminal charges. Moreover, the defendant in the criminal case and the civil case may not be the same as the defendant in the civil case. For instance, when a person is killed in an act of violence, the person who actually committed the homicide may face criminal charges, while the owner of the premises where the homicide happened may be held liable in civil court due to negligent security.
How are Recoverable Damages Divided in a Wrongful Death Claim?
Damages (financial compensation) in wrongful death cases are fundamentally divided into two categories. Some damages are recovered on behalf of the estate to compensate for losses that the decedent sustained due to his or her final illness and death. Those damages may include:
- Medical expenses for the decedent’s final illness
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Estate administration expenses
- Lost income during the final illness and death
- Pain and suffering prior to the death
Because these damages are awarded to the estate, they are subject to estate taxes. The second category of damages awarded in these cases aims to compensate the surviving family members for their losses. These damages are awarded directly to the beneficiaries and are generally tax-exempt, and might include:
- Loss of household services provided by the decedent
- Loss of care, companionship, guidance, and comfort
- Loss of financial support
- Emotional anguish related to the death
Following the Statute of Limitations in Wrongful Death Cases
Although calling an attorney may not be your first thought during this difficult time, you should be aware of the time limits that govern wrongful death claims. Pennsylvania law, 42 Pa. C.S. § 5524(2), requires estate executors to file wrongful death claims within two years of the date of death.
If a wrongful death and survival action is not filed within the applicable statute of limitations under state law, those entitled to recover risk losing their opportunity to file suit at all.
Wrongful death lawsuits can be highly emotional. By consulting a wrongful death lawyer, you could ensure that you file a claim correctly and abide by the statute of limitations.
Through wrongful death and survival claims, you may be able to seek compensation for medical expenses for your loved ones before their death, loss of support and guidance as a parent, spouse, or child, as well as funeral and burial expenses, among other costs. When you are ready, we are here to help–contact one of our attorneys.