Explainer: Wrongful Death and Survival Actions in Pennsylvania

By Member Lawyer

Of the many calls to our office, the saddest are from those who have lost a loved one because of someone’s recklessness or negligence. The facts may differ – from truck crashes to motorcycle accidents, accidental shootings and more. But in all cases the pain of losing that loved one is worsened by the fact that the tragedy could have been avoided. We can’t bring back a loved one, but we can help families seek compensation for their loss.

Compensation (damages) may be in a variety of forms. Medical and funeral expenses, financial compensation for future losses, money for children’s future education, and emotional losses, such as the loss of moral guidance and affection.

When a death is caused by negligence or wrongful acts of someone else, there are two types of legal claims that may be brought under Pennsylvania law: a Wrongful Death Action and a Survival Action. In some cases, only one of these is properly brought. In other cases, both can apply. It is worth noting that Defendant (the negligent party) is not restricted to being only another person. The Defendant(s) could include one or more persons, or even corporations or other types of legal entities.


Wrongful Death Actions – Pennsylvania Law


The Pennsylvania Wrongful Death statute allows a legal action to be brought to recover damages for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or negligence of another. The aim of a Pennsylvania Wrongful Death lawsuit is to compensate family members for losses they will suffer because the deceased person can no longer be in their lives. These types of losses are calculated from the time of death to the time a person was expected to live if the death did not occur.


Damages in Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Actions


Family members can seek several types of losses (damages) that may include:

  • Financial losses, such as support that the deceased person would have contributed to the
    family. These can include income, costs of housing, clothing, food, clothing, education, medical care, and
  • Work and services that the deceased person would have contributed to the home, including
    child care, home maintenance, cooking, cleaning, etc.
  • The family’s loss of the deceased person’s companionship, guidance and comfort.
  • The spouse of the deceased person may also seek losses for affection, love and the sexual

Damages in Wrongful Death cases was expanded by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case of Rettger v. UPMC Shadyside, 991 A.2d 915 (Pa.Super. 2010). The Court held that the word “services” was expanded to encompass the “profound emotional and psychological loss suffered” upon the death of the person. In cases where a parent brings a Wrongful Death action on behalf of their deceased minor child, the previous definition of services could be minimized. However, adding the “profound emotional and psychological loss suffered” component allows possible expanded financial recovery in these unfortunate situations.


Survival Actions – Pennsylvania Law


A Pennsylvania Survival Action seeks money damages (losses, compensation) for expenses and losses caused – to the Decedent – by the injuries suffered. These damages are calculated from the time of the injury up to the time the person passed away from those injuries.

Depending on the facts of a case, either a Wrongful Death action, Survival Action, or one or both, may be brought. The Pennsylvania Survival Action statute allows for the estate of a deceased person to “stand in the shoes’ of the person who has died. The personal representative of the estate is permitted to bring the same claims that the deceased person could have brought if they remained alive.

The types of damages that are available in a Pennsylvania Survival Action may include:

  • Hospital bills and medical expenses related to the injury
  • Pain and suffering that the deceased person suffered up to time of death
  • Wages lost from the time of the injury until the time of death
  • Emotional distress caused by the injury
  • Costs of funeral, burial and administration of the decedent estate.


Who Can Bring a Wrongful Death and/or Survival Action Lawsuit


In a Wrongful Death case the Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate may bring the action. The statute also provides that if the Personal Representative has not brought suit within 6 months of the date of death, any person who would be entitled to recover in a Wrongful Death claim can bring suit. By statute, the persons entitled to recover are the spouse, children, and parents of the decedent. This means that siblings, grandparents, and usually long-term boyfriends or girlfriends cannot bring a Wrongful Death lawsuit in Pennsylvania.

A Survival Action is slightly different. Only the Personal Representative of the Decedent’s estate may bring the action. As explained above, this is because Survival Actions are meant to compensate living persons, as if the deceased remained alive. The damages depend on the circumstances of the accident and length of time before death.

Who Receives Money Awards in Wrongful Death and Survival Actions


In a Wrongful Death action the money damages are paid directly to the beneficiaries of the deceased person. The beneficiaries are determined by the Pennsylvania Intestacy Statute. These funds are not subject to taxes, nor are they available to any creditors of the deceased party.

In a Survival Action the money damages are divided among the beneficiaries named in the Decedent’s Last Will and Testament. This allows for the possibility of a different class of beneficiaries than in a Wrongful Death case. However, if the Decedent did not have a Last Will, beneficiaries are determined by the Pennsylvania Intestacy Statute. Unlike a Wrongful Death case, the money damages from a Survival action pass through the estate. Therefore, it is subject to inheritance tax and can be reached by creditors of the Decedent.


Time Limits – Pennsylvania Wrongful Death or Survival Action Lawsuits


In almost all Pennsylvania cases, Wrongful Death or Survival Action lawsuits must be filed within two years of death. Missing this deadline may cause the loss of important legal rights.


Tax Issues – Pennsylvania Wrongful Death or Survival Actions


In claims/lawsuits containing both a Wrongful Death and a Survival Action, issues often arise concerning the allocation of damages between the two actions. As explained above, proceeds in Wrongful Death cases are not subject to taxes or creditors, but the proceeds in Survival Actions are. The taxation component is simply one more reason it is important to have an experienced attorney for situations implicating the Wrongful Death and Survival statutes.


Free Consultation – Call Us Now


If you have lost a loved one because of the negligence or wrongful acts of other parties, we extend our deepest sympathies. Call us now for a free consultation. With over 20 years of experience in serious injury and wrongful death cases, we have probably seen a situation like yours before. Your consultation is free – and we never charge any fee unless we obtain a money recovery for you. Call 1-800-755-0245 or send an instant message through our website: http://www.puzaklaw.com. We look forward to helping you through this difficult time.


IMPORTANT: Every case is unique in its facts and circumstances. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended as legal advice for any particular case. We recommend consultation with a lawyer of your choice who can perform a thorough analysis of your situation and the particular rights and remedies that may apply.

Trevor Neely
Author: Trevor Neely

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