In this article, we'll examine some key parts of Pennsylvania law as it affects wrongful death lawsuits. We'll start by looking at how the state defines wrongful death, and who may file this kind of civil lawsuit in the Pennsylvania court system. Then, we'll examine the kinds of damages available if a wrongful death lawsuit succeeds. We'll finish with a look at Pennsylvania's time limit, or "statute of limitations," for getting a wrongful death case filed.
How is "Wrongful Death" Defined in Pennsylvania?
Title 42, Chapter 83 of the Pennsylvania General Statutes, Section 8301 defines a wrongful death as one that is "caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another." A wrongful death claim may be filed even if a criminal case has already been filed in the state, based on the circumstances surrounding the same death.
Typically, the actions that caused the death must be the same type of actions that would support a personal injury claim (which the deceased could bring him or herself had the death not occurred). So, a wrongful death claim can be thought of as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer available to bring his or her own case to court. Instead, another party must file the wrongful death claim to seek compensation for the losses related to the fatal injury, which brings us to the next question.
Who May File a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
A wrongful death claim in Pennsylvania must be filed by the personal representative of the deceased person's estate. In this way, a wrongful death claim differs from a criminal case, which is filed by the prosecuting attorney in the county or other jurisdiction.
Although a wrongful death claim is filed by the personal representative, it is brought to court on behalf of the beneficiaries of the deceased person's estate. Therefore, if the personal representative does not file the wrongful death claim within six months of the date of death, any of the beneficiaries may file the claim on behalf of all the beneficiaries.
Damages in a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Case
In a civil case like a wrongful death lawsuit, the defendant's liability is expressed solely in terms of money damages (as opposed to a criminal case where a conviction leads to a sentence of imprisonment and other sanctions.)
Damages that may be available in a successful Pennsylvania wrongful death claim include:
- funeral and burial expenses
- hospital and medical expenses
- estate administration expenses
- lost wages and benefits, including amounts the deceased reasonably would have been expected to contribute to his or her family's support if he or she had lived
- compensation for the loss of household services, society, and comfort provided by the deceased, including provision of both physical comforts and services and moral guidance, comfort, and support, and
- compensation for pain and suffering.
Damages like loss of comfort, companionship, and guidance are intended to compensate the surviving family members for their losses related to the untimely death. As a result, these damages are only available if the deceased person left a surviving spouse, children, or parents.
Damages like funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses, and estate administration expenses, however, compensate the estate for the costs related to the untimely death. The personal representative may seek these damages in court even if there are no surviving spouse, children, or parents.
Learn more about Damages in a Personal Injury Case.
Time Limits for Filing a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Court
Like other states, Pennsylvania sets a time limit, or "statute of limitations," on wrongful death and other injury claims filed in its court system. In Pennsylvania, a wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the date of the deceased person's death. A wrongful death claim that is not filed within this two-year time period will not be heard by the court (unless some exception applies).
Because certain events can affect how the statute of limitations runs in a particular case, it is important to speak to an attorney if you have questions about how the time limit affects your case.