Legal Claims from Accidental Deaths

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One of the most challenging problems for the American legal system to deal with is how to handle civil claims arising out of the death of a person. Valuing a human life is an impossible task, yet our legal system is required to deal with that very issue.

When someone is killed as a result of the negligence of another person, like in a car accident or because of medical negligence, certain legal claims arise. Under Pennsylvania law the spouse, children and/or legal heirs of the deceased person (decedent) have the right to pursue those claims in court in order to receive monetary compensation to attempt to make up for the loss.

When Are There Legal Claims?

Legal claims for monetary damages only exist if someone else was responsible for the death. If the death was caused by an accident due to the negligence (carelessness) of someone else, like a vehicle crash, medical malpractice or other accident, legal claims arise. However, if the death came from natural causes or was the fault of the decedent, no legal claims can be pursued.

Who Can Pursue The Legal Claims?

The legal claims of the decedent must be brought by the legal representative of his “Estate.” If the decedent had a Will and named an “Executor” or “Executrix” to handle the Estate, then that person would be in charge of pursuing all legal claims. If the decedent had no Will, then an “Administrator” needs to be appointed by the court, and that person would manage the Estate and pursue any legal claims. The surviving spouse usually serves as Administrator. If there is no surviving spouse, then the parent, child or other appropriate relative usually serves as Administrator.

Wrongful Death Claims

Wrongful Death claims are available to certain surviving family members such as surviving spouses, parents and children. Assuming that the Estate is successful in proving that the death was caused by the negligence of the defendant, the following monetary damages can be recovered:

  1. Hospital, medical, funeral, burial and estate administration expenses;
  2. Compensation that will fairly and adequately compensate the family of the decedent (spouse, children and parents) for their loss of money the decedent would have spent on them for shelter, food, clothing, medical care, education, entertainment, gifts and recreation; and
  3. Fair and adequate compensation for family for the loss of the value of services, society and comfort, such as work around the home, and other services like guidance and moral upbringing of children.

The monies received under the Wrongful Death Claim are divided between the surviving spouse, children and/or parents of the decedent. The division is governed by laws regarding how an Estate is divided if a person dies without a Will. The Wrongful Death proceeds are not taxable to the people who receive the money.

Survival Act Claims

The Estate of the decedent has claims which are independent of those of the family of the decedent. These Survival Act claims are the claims of the decedent which “survive” his death. The following are the money damages that can be recovered under the Survival Act:

  1. Money to fairly and adequately compensate the Estate for the decedent’s mental and physical pain, suffering and inconvenience and loss of life’s pleasures endured from the moment of injury until the moment of death; and
  2. The total net amount of earnings from the date of the accident until the end of the decedent’s life expectancy. Life Tables from the United States government are used to calculate how long the decedent would have been expected to live but for the accident. Net earnings are calculated as follows: Gross earnings (wages expected to be earned plus value of fringe benefits) minus contributions to family for maintenance (this amount was awarded under the Wrongful Death Action) and cost of personal maintenance of the decedent (cost of necessary living expenses like food, clothing and shelter). So, the net earnings to be awarded to the Estate are gross earnings less what the decedent would have spent supporting his family and what he would have spent on his own personal maintenance.

As can be seen, the bulk of the recoverable damages are based upon the probable earnings and life expectancy of the decedent. The higher the earnings and longer life expectancy, the greater the value of the Survival Act claim.

The Survival Act claim is a claim of the decedent’s Estate. The monies recovered become a part of the Estate and are subject to State and Federal Estate Tax. The monies are distributed in accordance with the decedent’s Will. If no Will exists, then the monies are distributed to the heirs, just like the Wrongful Death proceeds.

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