Pennsylvania law has two ways of holding someone accountable for another person’s death. Charges in criminal court might find them guilty and sentence them, while a lawsuit in civil court might also (or instead) hold them liable for paying damages.
Was the death of your loved one an event that Pennsylvania civil courts might see as a wrongful death?
Causing the death of someone in a wrongful way
In Pennsylvania, a wrongful death is one “caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another.”
Wrongful death suits can take many surprising forms, making it impossible to list every type. But common and sometimes successful suits have involved:
- Medical malpractice in wrong diagnoses, allowing non-sterile conditions, omitting needed tests or leaving surgical tools inside patients.
- Official misconduct in shooting a suspect posing no danger, leaving a vulnerable prisoner with dangerous inmates, allowing events with lax safety precautions, or failing to train officials properly.
- Driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol or using a mobile device, failing to maintain a vehicle, or not securing a load of cargo.
Those filing the suit have the burden of proof
A lot can happen during a civil lawsuit, including out-of-court settlements, but ultimately a jury may decide its merits.
You must be able to show each element in a chain of facts. Sometimes, proving them in court can be surprisingly tricky.
First, you must show that the defendant had a legally valid duty to your loved one. Also, they failed to live up to the duty to take the kind of care reasonably expected of someone bound by similar responsibilities toward people like your loved one.
Next, this failure caused your loved one’s death. This means showing your loved one would have lived “if not for” the defendant’s negligence. If a patient is almost sure to die, and a doctor tries to save them, even if they did so negligently it may be impossible to prove the negligence caused the death.
For a final link in the chain of facts, you must show that the death caused you to suffer losses.
Survival actions and duplicate damages
As a note of caution, a wrongful death claim cannot “double dip,” seeking damages after the loved one succeeded in recovering damages for their injury while they were still alive.
Note also that many people call two kinds of suits sometimes filed together by the collective name “wrongful death” suit. Do not be too surprised if two suits become involved.
Technically, a suit seeking compensation on behalf of the loved one’s estate, as if they were still alive, is a “survival action.” It may seek damages for the deceased’s own pain and suffering before death, the wages they lost or would have earned, and payment for their medical bills.