The loss of a loved one due to another’s negligence or wrongdoing can have devastating effects on surviving family members. Such a death has both emotional and financial repercussions. When a family loses a loved one suddenly and in an untimely fashion, they are simply not prepared to face expenses such as medical bills and funeral expenses, not to mention the income that is lost due to the death of a wage earner or breadwinner.
A wrongful death lawsuit helps families not only recover monetary compensation for their tremendous losses, but it also helps them hold the negligent party or the wrongdoer accountable for their actions, or in some cases, the lack of action. The experienced Pennsylvania wrongful death attorneys at KaplunMarx PLLC have had a long and successful track record of protecting the rights of victims’ families and holding at-fault parties liable. Call us to find out how we can help you.
Understanding Wrongful Death Claims
A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit as opposed to “murder” or “manslaughter,” which are elements of a criminal action. In a criminal case, the defendant is found “guilty” of a crime and punished with a prison sentence, or in some cases, with a death penalty. Also, in a criminal case, the prosecutor (or the state) must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime.
However, a wrongful death lawsuit is a civil action where the plaintiff must prove through a “preponderance of the evidence” that the defendant was negligent or was “liable” for the decedent’s death. In a wrongful death case, if it is successful, plaintiffs receive monetary compensation from the defendant (whether it’s an individual, an entity or a corporation) for their losses.
A wrongful death action is typically brought by surviving family members of the decedent such as a spouse, partner or children (young or grown). In cases where the decedent did not have a family of his or her own, parents could file the lawsuit as survivors of the deceased. Other parties who can bring about a wrongful death action include siblings, other relatives or any one who was financially dependent on the decedent. Wrongful death claims most often stem from incidents such as car accidents, truck accidents, slip-and-fall accidents, workplace injuries and medical malpractice.
Damages in a Wrongful Death Lawsuit
There are a number of damages that plaintiffs could potentially seek in a Pennsylvania wrongful death case. The damages that are available in a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- Medical expenses: This includes all types of medical expenses incurred by the family prior to the decedent’s death. For example, if the victim suffered a car accident injury, which later proved to be fatal, he or she may have received emergency transportation. They may have undergone surgery and other types of treatment before succumbing to their injuries. So, as part of the wrongful death action, families of victims can seek compensation for all these types of expenses they had to deal with before the victim passed away.
- Funeral and burial costs: This is another “unforeseen” expense victims’ families often struggle with in the aftermath of a fatal incident that caused the wrongful death. Funerals can be extremely costly. Today, the average North American traditional funeral costs anywhere between $7,000 and $10,000, which includes services at the funeral home, burial in a cemetery and the installation of a headstone.
- Lost income: This refers to the amount the family is to receive for their loss of any contributions they would have received between the time of death of the decedent and the date of the lawsuit. This may include food, clothing, shelter, medical care, gifts, etc. Survivors may also seek lost future income, lost benefits and inheritance that is lost as a result of the decedent’s untimely death.
- Noneconomic damages: These are the damages that are not as clearly quantifiable such as the value of the decedent’s support, comfort and services to the family as well as loss of services that the decedent would have provided to his or her children such as mentorship, guidance, etc.
Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death Cases
In addition to compensatory damages that are meant to compensate victims for their losses, courts may also award survivors what are known as punitive damages. These damages essentially punish the at-fault party or wrongdoer for a serious or egregious level of negligence or misconduct. Courts award punitive damages to discourage the defendant from future wrongdoing.
It is often up to the plaintiff’s wrongful death lawyer to prove the applicability of punitive damages to the courts. Pennsylvania statutes do allow survivors of the decedent to recover punitive damages in a wrongful death case. In such cases, plaintiffs must prove that the defendant’s behavior not only directly caused their loved one’s wrongful death, but also that it was reckless and egregious.
Pennsylvania Survival Claim Damages
In a “survival claim,” the damages are awarded to the estate of the decedent. The personal representative, administrator or executor of the decedent’s estate may bring the survival action arising from the wrongful death. Damages in a survival action include but are not limited to loss of earnings from the date of injury to the date of death; loss of future earnings; loss of retirement income; medical expenses; and pain and suffering. Some of the damages in the survival action are similar to those available in a wrongful death action.
However, if both a survival action and wrongful death action are filed, the damages may not be duplicated. A settlement recovered in a survival action will go through the estate of the decedent and be distributed based on the decedent’s will. If no will exists, the damages are distributed according to Pennsylvania’s intestacy statutes. Such damages are also subject to Pennsylvania’s inheritance taxes because the damages must pass through the decedent’s estate unlike in a wrongful death action where the damages are awarded to the survivors.
Contacting an Experienced Lawyer
Wrongful death cases can be legally complex. Usually, the financial stakes are quite high for the victim’s family. You may already be fielding several calls from the insurance companies involved. In order to maximize the recovery of damages in your wrongful death case, it might be in your best interest to refrain from speaking with insurance companies or defense lawyers. Contact an experienced Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyer who will bear your best interest in mind. Call KaplunMarx PLLC for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation.