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Understanding Pennsylvania’s wrongful death law

This blog recently discussed certain aspects of the helicopter crash that killed former basketball star Kobe Bryant. We observed that Bryant’s family and the families of the other eight persons who died in the crash may have claims for wrongful death. That crash occurred in California, and the legal claims of the decedents’ families will be governed by California law. But what if the crash had occurred on one of the hills or valleys that shape central Pennsylvania’s landscape? The claims of the decedents’ families would be governed by Pennsylvania’s wrongful death statute. In this post, we will provide a summary of the essential features of the state’s wrongful death statute.

When English colonists began to settle the Eastern Seaboard, they naturally adopted the legal procedures that were familiar to them in their native land. One such feature was the extermination of a claim for personal injury if the victim died in the accident in question. This rule remained in effect in Pennsylvania until the early years of the twentieth century. Many states, including Pennsylvania, struggled with the obvious unfairness of this rule, and the states began to change the rule. With the passage of Pennsylvania’s wrongful death statute, the law underwent a profound change.

The law now permits an action to be brought to “recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence of another. . . .” This right of action exists “only for the benefit of the spouse, children or parents of the deceased, whether or not citizens or residents of this Commonwealth or elsewhere.” The major element of damages recoverable in a wrongful death lawsuit is the financial support that the decedent’s survivors could have reasonably expected to receive if the decedent had survived.

Anyone who has lost a family member due to the negligence of another person may wish to seek legal advice from an experienced personal injury lawyer about the evidence of the case and the likelihood of recovering damages if a formal claim is made.