A horrific motor vehicle accident between a large commercial truck and a 2004 Toyota Matrix that resulted in a Pennsylvania wrongful death lawsuit was settled in June 2012. According to The Pennsylvania Record, the Gettysburg family and the defendants settled in Sneeringer v. GLC Transportation for $26.1 million, an amount that may be the biggest personal injury settlement in Pennsylvania history.
The details of the traumatic brain injury along with permanent physical and emotional problems, while Sneeringer herself suffered many serious physical injuries.
The complaint was filed by Sneeringer, her husband and her mother. The complaint disputed the driver’s assertion that he could not see because of glare from the sun and that he did not know he had hit another vehicle because the truck was eastbound, away from the setting sun. The complaint claimed the driver had either not been “alert” or had been “asleep at the wheel.”
Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawsuits
As illustrated by the Sneeringer case, Pennsylvania statute allows a wrongful death lawsuit for money damages when someone is killed because of the “wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.” Under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act, the only surviving relatives who are recognized as beneficiaries in such a situation are the husband or wife, children and parents of the person who died.
They are still legal beneficiaries even if they do not live in Pennsylvania, and for wrongful death beneficiaries who do live in Pennsylvania, they do not have to have actually lived with the decedent to qualify. However, Pennsylvania courts have interpreted the statute as requiring that there must have been some “pecuniary loss” by the beneficiaries of the deceased.
For purposes of qualification as a beneficiary, pecuniary (monetary) loss can mean financial dependence on the decedent, but does not need to be that significant. Such loss can also be shown by the expectation that the beneficiary would have received other financial gain like gifts, help with education or housing, paid trips or entertainment, or assistance with medical bills. Even the value of company and comfort the decedent would have given the beneficiary may be enough to qualify.
Pennsylvania court rules provide that for the first six months after the death, the wrongful death suit must be brought by the personal representative of the deceased’s estate for the benefit of the statutory beneficiaries. After six months from the death have passed, either the personal representative or one of the beneficiaries may bring the suit for the benefit of all beneficiaries.
Damages recovered in a Pennsylvania wrongful death suit are divided among the beneficiaries in the same proportion that would be applied under the Pennsylvania intestacy laws to divide the decedent’s property if the person had died without a will. Significantly, wrongful death damages are legally protected from collection actions by the decedent’s creditors. Such damages may also not be reduced by the value of inheritance or insurance proceeds received separately by the beneficiaries because of the death of their relative.
The types of damages that may be available to a Pennsylvania wrongful death plaintiff are those that compensate for the beneficiaries’ pecuniary loss and could potentially reimburse for things like:
Personal services like chores, repairs and errands
Emotional support, companionship and comfort the beneficiaries would have received from the decedent had he or she lived
Actual monetary and other measurable support the deceased provided to the beneficiaries
Future earnings the decedent would have used for the beneficiaries’ benefit
The court will look at the history of the relationship between a beneficiary and the decedent to decide whether the ongoing relationship showed that such pecuniary gain would have been reasonably expected. If the relationship was ruptured or such contributions rarely happened in life, the beneficiary will probably not get such damages in a wrongful death action.
The beneficiaries may not recover damages for their own grief and suffering at the death of their loved one. Punitive damages (those meant to punish the wrongdoer) are also not generally available in Pennsylvania wrongful death actions.
In addition, “special damages” are available for reasonable hospital, nursing, medical, funeral and administrative costs stemming from the injuries that caused the wrongful death. If no wrongful death beneficiaries are alive, the personal representative of the deceased’s estate can sue on behalf of the estate under the wrongful death statute for damages in these same special damage categories.
If you lose a loved one because of the negligence or wrongdoing of another person, discuss the potential of a wrongful death lawsuit with an experienced personal injury attorney.