Under Pennsylvania law, when a person loses his or her life due to the negligence or wrongful conduct of another, the surviving family members may have grounds to file a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of suit is different from other types of personal injury claims for an obvious reason–the actual victim (called the “decedent”) is not bringing suit. Instead, it is brought by the family members or the decedent’s estate. Wrongful death suits are typically brought in order to recover damages for the injuries that the surviving family and/or estate have suffered due to the death of the victim. The main purpose of a wrongful death suit is to provide relief to family members who have been injured emotionally and financially as a result of the family member’s death.
In order to file a wrongful death suit under Pennsylvania law, the plaintiffs must show that the death of a person was caused by a wrongful act, neglect or default, and that the act, neglect or default would have entitled the injured person to file an action to recover damages had death not resulted. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8301.) There must also exist surviving beneficiaries, children, or dependants of the victim, and monetary damages must have resulted from the decedent’s death. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8301.)
The Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act determines who qualifies as a beneficiary in a wrongful death case. Generally speaking, beneficiaries include the parents, children, or spouse of the deceased, though parents must demonstrate dependency on the victim in order to recover any damages. They need not show complete dependency, however. If either or both of the parents relied on an adult child (or vice versa) for economic contributions to their welfare, they may receive compensation. The presumption is that minor children are always dependant, and spouses are entitled to recover damages based on dependency, the loss of love and affection, and the services of a deceased partner.
Pennsylvania law distinguishes between individuals who can file a wrongful death suit and those who are beneficiaries. Only certain individuals can file wrongful death claims, and those allowed to sue actually bring suit on behalf of others. Under Pennsylvania law, a surviving spouse, child, parent or guardian, or personal representative (a person appointed by the state of Pennsylvania to represent the beneficiaries) of the deceased person may file a suit on behalf of the surviving spouse, children, or parents.
Siblings and cousins of the decedent are barred from bringing the lawsuit unless they have been named as guardian or personal representative of the decedent. Even then, however, they have no right of recovery so long as there is a surviving spouse, child, or parent of the decedent. In cases where there is no surviving spouse, child or parent, however, siblings may file the suit on behalf of the decedent’s estate and can participate in the recovery through the estate. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8301.)
After a wrongful death, it is imperative that steps be taken promptly to preserve evidence, investigate the accident in question, and to file a lawsuit prior to the deadline imposed by the Pennsylvania wrongful death statute of limitations. For this reason, those considering bringing a wrongful death suit under Pennsylvania law should seriously consider consulting with one of the many qualified Pennsylvania lawyers handling this type of lawsuit as soon as possible after the death occurs.