Like all states, Pennsylvania has its own laws that apply to wrongful death claims. These laws permit a deceased person's survivors to file a lawsuit if the person died as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act. In this article, we'll cover the state's definition of wrongful death, who is eligible to file the lawsuit, the kinds of damages available in a successful claim, and time limit for filing a wrongful death case.
Pennsylvania law defines a "wrongful death" as one that is "caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another." (42 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. § 8301 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death occurs when one person dies due to the legal fault of another person or entity, including as a result of:
It can be useful to think of a wrongful death claim as a personal injury claim in which the injured person is no longer able to bring his or her own case to court. Instead, another party must step in and file the wrongful death claim on behalf of the deceased.
As with personal injury lawsuits in general, the defendant's liability in a successful wrongful death case is expressed solely in terms of financial compensation ("damages"), which the court orders the defendant to pay to the decedent's survivors. This is one big difference between a wrongful death lawsuit and criminal homicide cases, where a conviction will be penalized with jail or prison time, probation, and other sanctions.
Another difference to note between criminal prosecutions for homicide and civil lawsuits for wrongful death: In a criminal case, the accused's guilt must be established "beyond a reasonable doubt," which is a very high bar for the prosecution to clear. In a civil lawsuit, the defendant's liability need only be shown "by a preponderance of the evidence," meaning it's more likely than not that the defendant is responsible for the decedent's death. It is possible, though, for a single act to result in criminal charges and a wrongful death claim: A defendant can be sued for wrongful death in civil court while facing criminal charges related to the same death.
Read more about proving liability in a wrongful death case.
In Pennsylvania, the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate must file the wrongful death lawsuit. However, if the personal representative does not file the wrongful death claim within six months of the date of death, any of the deceased person's beneficiaries may file the claim on behalf of all beneficiaries. (Pa. Rules of Civil Procedure No. 2022 (2021).)
In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court orders the defendant to pay "damages"—or the plaintiff's claimed losses—to the deceased person's survivors or estate. In Pennsylvania, damages can be awarded to compensate for a range of losses, including:
Under Pennsylvania law, damages are intended to compensate the deceased's surviving spouse, children, and/or parents for their losses related to the death. However, even if there is no surviving spouse, child, or parent, the personal representative may still seek damages to compensate the estate for funeral and burial expenses, medical expenses, and estate administration expenses.
Get more details on damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Like other states, Pennsylvania has a law known as a "statute of limitations" that sets a time limit for filing wrongful death lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, a wrongful death claim must be filed within two years of the date of the person's death. If the case is not filed within that two-year time period, the court will very likely refuse to hear the case at all. (Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. § 5524 (2021).)
If you're considering a wrongful death lawsuit in Pennsylvania, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. Wrongful death claims are complicated, and an experienced lawyer can explain how the law might apply to your specific situation.