It is the news that all families fear: Your loved one did not make it.
With these few simple words, life has completely changed, leaving your family to deal with all the financial and emotional repercussions on your own.
If a family member dies or is killed through the conduct of another, whether it was intentional or due to someone’s negligence, the results are devastating for the surviving family members. Regardless of what happened, there needs to be accountability for a wrongful death. With the help of an experienced wrongful death attorney, you could rest assured that you have someone pursuing the justice you deserve while fighting for your family’s financial security.
What Is the Purpose of a Wrongful Death Claim?
In Pennsylvania, recovery for wrongful death is dictated by the state’s statute. However, the purpose of this claim is to compensate the decedent’s surviving loved ones for the pecuniary losses they sustained as a result of the decedent’s death.
These pecuniary losses are basically losses suffered by the family members as a result of the deprivation they have to endure by losing their loved one. These losses could include money that the decedent would have given or spent on their family for their housing, clothes, food, education, health care, entertainment, and other gifts. Additionally, recovery could also include the value of the services and comfort the family would have received had the decedent lived, such as companionship or even work around the house.
What Is the Difference Between a Wrongful Death and a Murder?
It is essential to understand that wrongful death lawsuits are civil actions filed by the decedent’s family members. The basis for their claim is that the defendant caused the death of their loved one through a deliberate, negligent, or careless action. In some cases, this action may also constitute murder, which is defined by criminal law.
Unlike wrongful deaths, murder charges are handled by the district attorney’s office and the criminal courts. At the same time, wrongful death lawsuits are taken care of by the civil courts. In a murder case, if the defendant is found guilty, they could be punished with prison time or even the death penalty. In comparison, a wrongful death lawsuit could result in the defendant being found liable for the death and ordered to pay compensation or support to the decedent’s family members.
Another important distinction is the burden of proof required in both of these legal actions. For example, in a wrongful death suit, the family needs to prove that the defendant’s negligence resulted in their loved one’s death by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning at least 51 percent probability that the defendant was negligent. However, in a murder case, the prosecutor must show that the defendant was guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Finally, in wrongful death lawsuits, the conduct is often different from a murder case. The type of conduct alleged in a wrongful death suit can include negligent or careless behavior, such as reckless driving and killing another motorist. While in a criminal case, there is some degree of criminal intent involved.
Which Loved Ones Can Recover Compensation in a Wrongful Death Claim?
According to Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act, only the following members can collect damages:
- Deceased individual’s spouse
- Deceased individual’s children
- Deceased individual’s parents
These damages can include the loss of companionship and financial support, reasonable nursing costs, hospital expenses, medical expenses, administrative costs, and funeral expenses. Additionally, the deceased’s children, spouse, and parents could also receive a share of the wrongful death damages according to the Pennsylvania intestacy laws. This means that these heirs would receive a share of the wrongful death proceeds following the legal guidelines as if there was no will.
What Is the Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations?
In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim is two years from the victim’s death. This means that if you do not file your claim within that time frame, your action for damages will be barred. That is why it is essential to discuss your case with an experienced wrongful death attorney as soon as possible. They can let you know if you have a viable claim and how much time you have to file your case.
What Are the Elements of a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
If you want to succeed in a wrongful death lawsuit, you need to prove:
- A death resulted from another person’s intent to cause harm or as a result of their negligence.
- The at-fault party owed a duty of care to the deceased victim, and because of their negligence, they breached this duty.
- The surviving family members suffered a monetary injury as a result of the death.
Wrongful death claims can arise from many different circumstances, including:
- Motor vehicle accidents where the driver had a duty to obey the rules of the road and failed to do so
- Trucking collisions
- Airplane accidents
- Medical malpractice accidents resulting in the patient’s death
- Violent criminal encounters
- Workplace exposures to hazardous conditions or substances
- A supervised activity resulting in an individual’s death
- Dangerous conditions on someone’s property
- Defective products
- Incidents involving pedestrians or bicyclists
The best way to prove the elements and collect the compensation your family deserves is through the assistance of an experienced wrongful death attorney. The lawyer could produce convincing evidence that you would need to provide to show liability and damages.
What Are the Damages in a Wrongful Death Suit?
Typically, in Pennsylvania, three types of damages are available for survivors in a wrongful death lawsuit.
These include the following:
- Economic damages: Economic Damages include the decedent’s financial contributions to their family had they not died. In addition, these damages also cover medical expenses, funeral expenses, burial expenses, and the loss of benefits such as specific pensions, a loss of inheritance, and a loss of medical coverage. These damages could also cover future earnings loss and a loss of the value of services and goods the decedent may have provided to their family.
- Non-economic damages: Non-Economic Damages include a survivor’s mental anguish, loss of love, loss of companionship, and a loss of consortium.
- Punitive damages: Punitive Damages are only awarded when the court finds that the defendants’ actions were so egregious that it is appropriate to punish the defendant and deter them and others from committing the same act in the future.
What Factors Determine the Amount of These Damages?
Unfortunately, determining these damages is not as easy as many expect it to be. For example, when determining these financial losses, the court would take into account the age, condition, and even the character of the decedent, as well as their earning capacity, life expectancy, intelligence, and overall health. Additionally, they could also take into account the circumstances of the family.
Often, the primary consideration in these damages is the circumstances at the time of the decedent’s death. For instance, if an adult passes away, and they are a wage earner, the court may look into the loss of income and the loss of parental guidance. They can also consider the decedent’s earnings and potential future earnings when determining overall damages.
Even though the whole process may seem complicated, if you have retained a skilled wrongful death attorney, they could figure out precisely what damages they need to fight for on your behalf.
Do You Need to Use Expert Witness Testimony in Wrongful Death Claims?
As wrongful death actions usually require extensive evidence to prove what a family has lost due to a decedent’s death, bringing expert testimony is often necessary to determine value. Wrongful death attorneys may bring in economists to help establish the worth of the decedent to their family. As jurors often do not have the knowledge needed to confirm the monetary value of specific jobs or services, these experts help them in their evaluation.
Survival Actions—What Are They?
In a survival action, the personal representative of the decedent’s estate is substituted for the deceased. This operation is the statutory right of the deceased’s estate to bring an action for those claims that the deceased would have had during their lifetime. Simply put, in addition to the damages that the heirs can recover from a wrongful death lawsuit, they can also recover damages for personal injuries to the deceased, which can include damages of lost wages and pain and suffering.
When deciding on a descendant’s pain and suffering, the jury could look into the following factors to determine the amount of damages the personal representative can collect, including:
- The severity of the pain the decedent suffered.
- The degree of their consciousness.
- The apprehension the decedent had of their impending death, along with the total duration of that suffering.
Even though the survival action claim can be brought together with a wrongful death action, the proceeds of a survival action are administered through probate, or according to the deceased’s Will. In cases where there is no Will, it will go through Pennsylvania’s intestate succession laws. Another important distinction is that unlike a wrongful death suit, the survival action damages are taxed, requiring both estate and inheritance taxes. Additionally, only after the estate’s creditors are paid, will the remaining proceeds be disbursed to the decedent’s heirs.
Damages Recoverable in a Survival Action
In addition to pain and suffering, the other specific damages that may be recoverable in a survival action include:
- The deceased’s inconvenience and loss of life’s pleasures from the time of the accident to the time of their death.
- The deceased’s total earnings between the time of the accident and their death.
- The deceased’s lost past net earnings between the date of their death and the date of the trial.
- The deceased’s total lost future net earning power capacity between the trial date and the end of their life expectancy.
- The deceased’s gross earnings, including their fringe benefits, between their death and the date of the trial, minus any of the monetary contributions they would have made to their family (these are calculated under the wrongful death damages), and minus any of the deceased’s personal maintenance.
- The deceased’s gross earnings between the trial date minus the monetary contributions they would have made to their family during this period, and minus the deceased’s personal maintenance.
These rules may seem complicated and confusing to understand. However, when you enlist the help of a knowledgeable wrongful death attorney, they can walk you through the whole process, figuring out which damages apply to you.
Why You Need an Experienced Wrongful Death Attorney Fighting for You
Wrongful death claims are quite stressful; not only because the grieving family is dealing with the loss of their loved one, but they are all of the sudden thrust into these legal proceedings where every action can have significant repercussions.
However, with the help of a wrongful death attorney who has experience dealing with wrongful death claims, you could get the support you need while they focus on building the most persuasive case possible on your behalf. They could not only investigate the accident—making sure to go after the most relevant and crucial evidence—but they can interview witnesses, bring in the experts that are needed to prove your damages, and provide you the answers you need.
If you have lost a loved one and believe you may be eligible to file for a wrongful death lawsuit, contact a skilled wrongful death lawyer today. Let them relieve you of the burden of handling all these tedious legal details on your own, while you focus on what matters most—the healing process of losing a family member.