What to Know About Wrongful Death Claims in Pennsylvania

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is one of the hardest events anyone must face. There are emotional, financial, and practical implications with which you’ll have to contend. The trauma and pain survivors feel is further magnified when the death was preventable, such as when someone’s negligence or wrongdoing caused it.

When you lose a loved one as a result of another party’s negligence, carelessness, or malicious intent, Pennsylvania law provides that you are entitled to pursue compensation for your losses from the at-fault party (defendant) via a wrongful death claim. There is a lot that goes into filing a claim, though. Make sure you learn the basics about wrongful death cases and consult Cordisco & Saile LLC for answers specific to your case. Below, we answer three important questions, the answers to which all survivors should know.

Who is eligible to file a wrongful death claim?

Pennsylvania law mandates that wrongful death claims can only be brought by the personal representative of the estate. The personal representative may be an executor that was named in the deceased’s will, or another qualified person who will administer the estate. Statutes provide the process and protocols for determining and assigning the personal representative. In any case, the courts will need to approve the representative. In many cases, it’s a family member.

But the personal representative doesn’t file the claim on her own behalf. Rather, she files the claim on behalf of eligible beneficiaries to whom any settlement monies awarded for the wrongful death claim will be distributed. In Pennsylvania, the only relatives that qualify as beneficiaries are the surviving spouse, children, and parents of the deceased. Also, to be considered a qualifying beneficiary, survivors must be able to demonstrate that they sustained financial damages.

If six months after your loved ones death the personal representative has not filed the wrongful death claim, any eligible beneficiary may file it.

What do I need to prove to win my case?

There are several elements that claimants must establish in a wrongful death claim. They include the following.

  • Duty of care – You must first establish that the defendant owed your loved one a legal duty of care. For example, property owners owe visitors a duty of care, doctors owe patients a duty of care, and drivers owe everyone on the road a duty of care.
  • Breach of duty – You must prove that the defendant failed to uphold his duty of care, i.e., he acted negligently or carelessly. For instance, a driver may have acted negligently by driving while under the influence.
  • Causation – Next, you must prove that the defendant’s negligence is what caused your loved one’s death. Using the above example, you’ll need to show that the accident occurred because the defendant was intoxicated and that your loved one died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.
  • Damages – Lastly, you’ll have to verify that you sustained actual loss as a result of your loved one’s death. You’ll have to prove that you sustained expenses and losses (both current and future) as a result of loving your loved one.

How do you prove the above elements? Each case is different, but there will need to be substantial evidence. Evidence may include things such as police reports, medical records, photos and videos, eyewitness testimony, testimonies from field experts, work history files, financial records, etc. Cordisco & Saile LLC can advise you of what items you may need to collect.

What can I recover with a wrongful death claim?

The type and measure of damages compensable with a wrongful death claim vary from claim to claim. Much depends on the unique circumstances and facts surrounding the case. One of the most complicated damages to compute is the loss of income. You may be able to recover your loved one’s contributions from the date of the accident to the date of death as well as from the date of death to the end of his life expectancy.

If you are an eligible beneficiary, some of the other damages you may be able to recover include the following.

  • The medical and hospital bills accrued prior to death
  • The money your loved one would have spent on you/your family for items such as shelter, food, education, clothing, gifts, etc.
  • The estimated value of the services and comfort your loved one would have provided had he lived, such as household services (e.g., cooking, cleaning, yard maintenance, childcare)
  • Loss of love, affection, and consortium (recoverable for the surviving spouse)
  • The loss of guidance, inheritance, moral upbringing, advice, love, guidance and support (recoverable for the deceased’s children)
  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Estate administration expenses in regards to the wrongful death
  • Punitive damages (Punitive damages are those awarded not to compensate the beneficiaries for their losses, but rather to punish the defendant when his actions were particularly egregious or willful.)

There is case law in which the courts have awarded damages for items not listed above. For example, courts mainly awarded settlements only for pecuniary losses. However, with the Rettger v. UPMC decision in 2011, the courts expanded the damages to incorporate non-pecuniary losses, such as the emotional and psychological loss, grief, and emotional distress. This means the potential for higher settlements for survivors.

There is no cap on the amount of damages for a wrongful death claim that the courts may award, except for punitive damages which cannot exceed two times the amount of compensatory damages.

Also keep in mind that wrongful death actions are separate from survival actions. The latter recover damages the decedent suffered after the accident but prior to death, such as medical bills, emotional pain and suffering, and more.

It may necessitate several professional field experts including an accountant, a tax expert, and a forensic economist to estimate the actual value of a claim. Cordisco & Saile LLC will help you decide which types of damages to request, how to use statutory and case law to support the request, and how to maximize your recovery.

Call Cordisco & Saile LLC for a Free Consult with a Wrongful Death Lawyer

If you recently lost your loved one and are unsure of how to proceed with legal matters, we encourage to you to call our office to speak with a wrongful death attorney. The consultation is free. Contact Cordisco & Saile LLC today at 215-642-2335 and let’s see how we may be of service to you.