How Wrongful Death Lawsuits Are Different Than Other Lawsuits

April 21, 2022

Wrongful death claims are a unique area of the law that differs from other types of lawsuits, so we thought a blog addressing these nuances would be helpful. Following are some of the ways in which wrongful death lawsuits are distinctive. For questions regarding a specific wrongful death matter, contact our firm to speak with one of our attorneys.

Who the Plaintiffs Are

In most lawsuits, it’s obvious who the plaintiff(s) (i.e., the harmed party) should be. However, in a wrongful death claim, the plaintiff is not necessarily the person or persons who will recover compensation if the lawsuit is successful. Rule 230 Pa. C.S. §2202 states that in most cases, the personal representative (PR) is the proper person to file a wrongful death claim “for the benefit of those persons entitled by law to recover damages for such wrongful death.” This is true even though any compensation recovered will not be awarded to the estate.

Underlying Acts and The Burden of Proof

Rule 42 Pa. C.S. §8301 states that a wrongful death action may be brought to recover “for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” This means that the underlying act that gives rise to wrongful death claims can be the result of a criminal or civil act. Keep in mind that the burden of proof is different for a criminal act than it is for a civil act. In a criminal trial, guilt must be proven beyond a “reasonable doubt”, while in a civil trial, the bar is set lower. The burden of proof in a civil matter is only a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The difference in the burden of proof means that even if a defendant is found not guilty in a criminal matter, they may still be found guilty in a subsequent lawsuit for wrongful death as it is a civil matter. Because of this, do not assume that a wrongful death claim will not be successful just because the defendant was found not guilty of the underlying criminal act. 

Who Can Recover Compensation

Unlike many other types of lawsuits in Pennsylvania, the law limits the people who are able to recover damages in a wrongful death lawsuit to the spouse, children, or parents of the deceased. Also, case law has held that when the children are adults, they must be able to prove that they suffered a pecuniary loss in order to be able to recover compensation. A pecuniary loss is a financial loss, and adult children can typically establish it by proving the deceased provided them with support and gifts. Absent a showing of a pecuniary loss, the adult children will not be able to recover any compensation. 

Distribution of the Amount Recovered

Once compensation is awarded in wrongful death claims \, either through a trial or settlement negotiations, it is time to distribute the amount that has been recovered. It would appear at first glance that since the personal representative (PR) of the decedent’s estate brought the claim, any compensation brought through that claim would belong to the estate. This is not, however, the case. Damages awarded do not go to the estate, but instead, go straight to the beneficiaries of the decedent. 

Because the compensation does not go to the estate but rather to the beneficiaries, it is not distributed pursuant to the terms of the Will even if the decedent had one. Typically, it is distributed according to the rules of intestacy (how estates are distributed when there isn’t a Will). The funds are also not subject to any debts the estate is subject to pay. 

Speak With An Attorney at Drake, Hileman, & Davis

If you have lost a loved one due to the intentional actions or neglect of another, you should contact the attorneys at Drake, Hileman, & Davis. We understand how wrongful death matters differ from other areas of the law, and we can help you recover the compensation you are due. Our firm handles wrongful death claims, in Allentown, Bethlehem  Easton, and Stroudsburg as well as other areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To schedule a consultation, you may call 888-777-7098 or reach out via our contact page