In Pennsylvania, certain family members are entitled to pursue compensation when their loved one’s death is caused by another person’s carelessness. Those family members and others may also be entitled to share in compensation paid to the victim’s estate for pain and other harms that the victim suffered as a result of the accident that caused the victim’s death.
The Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyers at KaplunMarx help family members receive compensation for tragic deaths caused by another person. To help families of death victims understand their rights, we’ve prepared answers to some of the questions we are often asked about Pennsylvania wrongful death law.
What Is a Wrongful Death?
A wrongful death is any death caused by a person, company, or product without legal justification. Self-defense is an example of a legal justification for causing a death.
Murder, the intentional killing of another person, is a wrongful death. Few murder cases lead to wrongful death lawsuits, however, because most murderers go to prison and have no assets with which to pay a judgment.
Most wrongful death lawsuits focus on deaths caused by negligent or reckless acts. A death caused by another person’s carelessness is a wrongful death.
What Kinds of Negligent Acts Cause a Wrongful Death?
Most wrongful deaths occur in car accidents. Car accident victims who are most vulnerable to death are pedestrians, motorcycle riders, and bicyclists.
When they are inside a car, accident victims are protected by airbags, crumple zones, and other safety equipment, but a high-speed crash or a collision with a heavy truck may nevertheless lead to a vehicle occupant’s death. Wrongful deaths are most likely to occur when a car rolls over or bursts into flame as a result of the collision.
Wrongful deaths can also be caused by medical malpractice. Careless physicians or hospital staff members may cause a death by dispensing the wrong medication, administering a fatal dose of anesthesia, cutting an artery or organ during surgery, misdiagnosing a curable disease, or committing other errors that a careful healthcare provider would avoid.
Property owners are required to maintain property in a way that does not endanger people who use the property. Unsafe premises can cause a wrongful death due to tripping hazards, missing handrails, faulty or exposed wiring, toxic chemicals, and dangerous property conditions that are hidden from view. In some cases, such as the failure to restrict access to a swimming pool, a property owner can be held responsible for the death of someone who was using the property without the owner’s consent.
Construction accidents sometimes kill innocent bystanders. For example, if falling debris from a building demolition kills someone who was walking on a sidewalk, the failure to prevent that death is the kind of careless act that can give rise to a wrongful death lawsuit.
Death can also be caused by a defective product, including a product that is poorly designed. Children who choke to death on easily removable parts of a toy and children who are strangled between the bars of a crib are examples of deaths caused by products that are poorly designed or manufactured. Appliances that topple over, tires that fail, and exploding lawnmowers are other examples of defective products that can kill consumers.
Who Receives Compensation for a Wrongful Death?
In Pennsylvania, those who can pursue wrongful death claims include the deceased victim’s spouse, children, and parents. The settlement or verdict is distributed among those relatives as if the victim had died without a Will. When a spouse, children, or parents survive the deceased, wrongful death compensation does not belong to the deceased’s estate and does not pass through probate.
What Compensation is Available for a Wrongful Death?
Pennsylvania’s Wrongful Death Act specifies that the deceased’s spouse, children, and parents may recover the deceased’s medical and funeral expenses, and the expense of administering the estate, as well as “other damages.” Pennsylvania courts have held that “other damages” include:
- Money the victim would have distributed to those family members if the victim had not died (such as making mortgage payments and paying for food and educational expenses)
- The value of services the victim would have provided to those family members if the victim had not died (such as cleaning, meal preparation, and home repairs)
- Compensation for the loss of companionship and comfort that the victim would have provided to those family members
- Compensation to children for the loss of guidance and moral support that a parent provides
- Compensation for the emotional and psychological harm that those family members experience because of the victim’s death
In many cases, computing fair compensation requires the assistance of expert witnesses. For instance, it may be helpful to have an economist and a vocational specialist determine the deceased’s probable future earnings and the percentage of those earnings that would have been provided to family members. Experts may also be required to determine the market value of services that the deceased would have provided to family members.
Choosing the right expert witness helps family members receive fair compensation for their losses. The wrongful death lawyers at Philadelphia’s KaplunMarx use their knowledge and experience to choose experts who are suitable to each case.
Is Wrongful Death Compensation Taxable?
The compensation received by a spouse, children, or parents for a wrongful death does not become part of the estate, so no estate tax or inheritance tax is assessed. Wrongful death compensation is not regarded as income, so it is not subject to income tax.
Is the Deceased Victim Also Entitled to Compensation?
It is often possible to bring a survival claim in addition to a wrongful death claim. While a wrongful death claim seeks compensation for certain family members resulting from an accident victim’s death, a survival claim seeks compensation for the harms suffered by the victim.
Since the victim is no longer alive to bring a survival claim, it is pursued by the victim’s estate. Or, if the victim survived long enough to start a personal injury lawsuit and then died from those injuries, the personal injury lawsuit can be maintained by the victim’s estate as a survival lawsuit.
Who Obtains Compensation in a Survival Claim?
While a wrongful death claim compensates the spouse, children, and parents of the deceased victim, a survival claim compensates the victim. The victim is entitled to compensation for the losses and suffering that he or she experienced as the result of another person’s negligence. However, since the victim is no longer living, that compensation is paid to the victim’s estate.
An estate is distributed according to the terms of the deceased’s Will. Beneficiaries of the Will therefore share compensation paid for a survival claim in accordance with the terms of the Will. If the victim had no Will, the estate (including survival claim compensation) is distributed pursuant to the laws of the State of Pennsylvania.
What Compensation is Paid in a Survival Claim?
A survivor claim compensates the victim for the result of injuries caused by another person’s negligence. The same kind of compensation is available for survival claims that would be available for other personal injury claims.
Compensation might include:
- medical expenses incurred prior to death
- loss of past and future income (and the value of lost benefits)
- pain, suffering, and emotional distress that the victim endured between the time the injuries were inflicted and the time of death
Compensation might also include punitive damages when the accident was caused by egregious behavior, such as drunk driving. Punitive damages are not usually covered by insurance, but they can be an important part of a survival claim in some cases.
Is Survival Claim Compensation Taxable?
Since the proceeds of a survival claim belong to the victim’s estate, they may be subject to Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax and federal estate tax. Whether and how much the estate or its beneficiaries will be taxed depends on the amount of the money the estate receives for the survival claim and the value of the other assets in the estate.
In addition, since survival claim compensation is paid to the estate, it can be used to pay the estate’s creditors. Wrongful death compensation goes directly to the spouse, children, and parents and therefore will not be used to satisfy debts owed by the deceased victim.
Can a Survival Claim Be Combined with a Wrongful Death Claim?
In most cases, survival claims and wrongful death claims are brought in the same lawsuit. However, compensation paid for the two claims cannot be duplicative. For example, if a survival claim seeks lost wages and a wrongful death claim seeks lost financial contributions that would have been paid from wages, compensation for those overlapping claims will not be paid twice.
The lawyer who handles a Pennsylvania wrongful death claim will often handle the survival claim at the same time. That makes it easier to allocate compensation between the two claims.
All settlements of wrongful death and survival lawsuits must be approved by the Pennsylvania court in which the lawsuits were filed. As part of that process, the court will decide how to allocate the compensation paid as wrongful death compensation and the compensation paid to compensate the deceased victim. That allocation determines what portion of the total compensation is paid to the wrongful death beneficiaries and what portion is paid to the estate.
When Must a Wrongful Death Claim Be Filed?
In most cases, a lawsuit for the victim’s wrongful death and/or a survival claim must be brought within two years of the date of the accident that caused the victim’s death. The deadline is determined based on a case’s statute of limitations. Failing to file a lawsuit before that deadline expires will usually lead to the loss of the right to receive compensation from the negligent party.
Under limited circumstances, the deadline for filing a wrongful death lawsuit is not set until the negligence was or could have been discovered. That exception usually arises in cases where death is caused by medical malpractice and the negligent physician does not disclose (or conceals) the negligent act that caused the victim’s death.
Rather than guessing at the deadline for bringing a wrongful death or survival lawsuit, it is best to seek prompt legal advice. Consulting a Pennsylvania wrongful death lawyer at KaplunMarx right away allows our legal team to begin an investigation and to gather information while memories are fresh and before evidence disappears.