Grieving the loss of a loved one becomes even more painful when their death is the result of another party’s negligence. Although nothing can bring your loved one back, filing a wrongful death claim can help you hold the negligent party accountable for their actions, provide the funds you need to recover financially from your loss, and give you a much-needed sense of closure. In some cases, taking legal action can also help to keep others from becoming victims of the same negligent behavior.
Filing a Wrongful Death Claim
Under Pennsylvania law, a wrongful death is defined as one that is "caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another." See Title 42, Chapter 83 of the Pennsylvania General Statutes, Section 8301 for details. Typically, this includes deaths from car accidents, drownings, slip and falls, dog bite attacks, and medical malpractice. A wrongful death claim may be thought of as an extension of the personal injury claim the victim would have been able to bring if they had survived their injuries.
Since a wrongful death claim is a civil action, it is separate from any criminal charges related to the accident. Criminal charges lead to fines and jail time, while civil actions compensate the surviving family members for their loss. A criminal conviction will make it easier to win your wrongful death claim, but you can still win a wrongful death suit even if criminal charges were successful. This is because a criminal case requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, while a civil case only requires you to prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is responsible.
A wrongful death claim must be filed by the personal representative of the deceased’s estate. However, it is brought on behalf of the beneficiaries of the estate. As a result, if the personal representative does not file the wrongful death claim within six months of the date of death, one of the beneficiaries may file the claim on behalf of the collective group of heirs.
Determining Liability After a Wrongful Death
A wrongful death claim may name an individual or a business as the defendant. In some cases, more than one defendant may be named because the evidence suggests they share liability for the death.
Wrongful death cases use a wide range of evidence to establish liability, including law enforcement reports, photos, medical records, and witness testimony. However, expert testimony is often the most persuasive. For example, in a case involving medical malpractice, testimony from medical experts familiar with the decedent’s condition must be provided to establish the accepted standard of care.
There are three key elements that must be considered when determining liability:
- Duty of care. The defendant had a responsibility to take reasonable precautions to keep the deceased person safe. For example, drivers have a legal duty to obey traffic laws.
- Breach of duty. The defendant did not fulfill their duty to the deceased person because they acted in an unsafe matter. In a car accident case, this might include speeding, tailgating, distracted driving, or other traffic violations.
- Causation. The defendant’s breach of duty is the direct cause of the wrongful death.
Available Damages in a Wrongful Death Claim
A wrongful death claim provides financial compensation for damages resulting from the accident. Potential damages can include:
- Reasonable funeral and burial expense
- Estate administration costs
- Medical costs up to the time of death
- Loss of the deceased person’s income to support the family, including benefits such as health insurance that was obtained from employment
- Loss of the deceased person’s household services
- The deceased person’s pain and suffering, if death did not occur immediately
- The family’s loss of a relationship with their loved one
- Punitive damages, if the case involves extreme malice or negligence
Every case is different, but the damages in a wrongful death claim can be substantial. For example, Philadelphia personal injury attorney Gary Heslin settled one wrongful death case for $750,000 dollars. It involved a child who was found submerged and drowned at the bottom of a public swimming pool. On the day of the accident, it was sunny. Due to the height of the lifeguard stand, the lifeguards couldn’t see past the surface of the pool. It was later determined that if the stand was higher, this tragedy could have been avoided.
Request a Free Consultation with our Philadelphia Injury Attorney
We understand how difficult this time is for you, but we’re here to help. If you think you may have a valid wrongful death claim, contact us for a free legal consultation. We’ll answer any questions you may have and explain your options, so you can determine the best way for you and your family to move forward.
Our office is located in Philadelphia’s Mayfair neighborhood and convenient to residents of Crescentville, Lawndale, Rhawnhurst, Tacony, Holme Circle, Holmesburg, Upper Holmesburg, Morrell Park, Oxford Circle, Castor Gardens, Burholme, Bell's Corner, Normandy, Summerdale, Bustleton, Parkwood, Somerton, Fox Chase, Modena Park, Pennypack Woods, Torresdale, and Winchester Park.