This blog focuses on the law in Pennsylvania and West Virginia (and other practical issues that arise) when a family member or friend is unfortunately lost due to an accidental death.
Published: June 24, 2016
By: Richard Ogrodowski
Recently, and as previously discussed in this blog, Pennsylvania state courts have found that an arbitration provision in an admission agreement of a nursing home operator or skilled nursing facility does not waive the right to a jury trial as to a wrongful death claim or survival claim.
Differentiating from recent decisions by other federal district courts in Pennsylvania permitting the wrongful death claim and survival claim to be severed when the nursing home or skilled nursing facility contract contained an arbitration agreement, the Honorable Arthur J. Schwab of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania held in Grkman v. 890 Weatherwood Lane Operating Company, LLC, 2016 WL 3057656 (May 31, 2016), that wrongful death and survival claims against a nursing facility operator would proceed to a jury trial, despite the plaintiff signing, on behalf of his father, an admission agreement with an arbitration clause.
In Grkman, the plaintiff’s father was admitted to the defendant’s skilled nursing facility with an ulcer. Over several months, the ulcer worsened, which allegedly caused additional health complications leading to the death of the plaintiff’s father. So that his father could be admitted to the skilled nursing facility, plaintiff, as Power of Attorney, signed an Admission Agreement containing a clause requiring binding arbitration for any dispute or controversy related to plaintiff’s father’s care at the facility.
Following his father’s death, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania alleging claims for wrongful death and survival. Pursuant to the terms of the arbitration clause in the Admission Agreement, the defendant skilled nursing facility filed a motion to dismiss the claims.
In denying the motion to dismiss, Judge Schwab found that by applying general agency principles, the plaintiff, as the Power of Attorney, had the right to sign the agreement. By signing the agreement on behalf of his father, plaintiff waived his deceased father’s right to a jury trial as to the survival claim. Judge Schwab also found, however, the plaintiff did not waive his right to file a wrongful death action, which claim belongs to plaintiff and not his deceased father.
Following the above findings, Judge Schwab noted the Admission Agreement contained a choice of law provision stating that the agreement shall be interpreted according to the laws of Pennsylvania. Since Pennsylvania substantive law precludes severance of the wrongful death claim and survival claim, Judge Schwab concluded that both claims must be tried before a jury.
Published: June 3, 2016
By: Richard Ogrodowski
While driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike a couple of weeks ago, I twice encountered the remnants of large tires from tractor-trailers in the middle of the highway. With quick maneuvering, I was lucky to avoid the tires. The damaged tires easily could have caused an accident and were a reminder of the potential dangers drivers face on state roads and highways. This made me think about and then inquire into crash statistics for tractor-trailers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Interestingly, in April 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) released its 2015 Pennsylvania Crash Facts and Statistics booklet . The booklet provides information involving reported crashes involving cars, tractor trailers, buses, motorcycles, etc. that occurred in Pennsylvania in 2015 on the state’s approximately 120,000 miles of roads and highways. The information was collected from police crash reports from the Pennsylvania State Police and approximately 1,300 local municipal police departments.
In 2015, there were 127,127 reported traffic crashes resulting in 1,200 deaths and 80,004 injured people in Pennsylvania, which was the eleventh lowest total for crashes since 1950.
Notably, out of the 127,127 crashes in Pennsylvania, 6,916 involved heavy trucks. This was the highest total since 2011. The booklet defines heavy trucks as including tractor-trailers, single unit trucks, such as coal trucks, and motor homes. Basically, a heavy truck is one that is designed for carrying a heavy load of property on or in the vehicle. There were 130 fatal crashes involving heavy trucks, which resulted in 149 deaths.
As you can tell, despite an attempt by automotive manufacturers to improve safety, there are still a fair amount of crashes and deaths that occur on roads and highways in Pennsylvania involving heavy trucks, such as tractor-trailers.
Published: May 27, 2016
By: Richard Ogrodowski
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has reaffirmed that an arbitration agreement executed by a decedent’s spouse is not binding on wrongful death beneficiaries. In Brosius v. HCR Manorcare, LLC, 2016 WL 1625790 (Pa. Super. April 25, 2016), William Brosius died while a resident at a Manor Care facility following his admission to recover from surgery to repair a broken right femur. The broken femur resulted from a ladder fall. Brosius’ wife signed an arbitration agreement with Manor Care, which included a requirement that claims of malpractice against Manor Care be submitted to arbitration.
Brosius’ wife, as executrix of the estate of Brosius, filed a complaint alleging wrongful death and survival claims. She further alleged that, due to the negligence of Manor Care, Brosius suffered a Stage III sacral ulcer, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, sepsis, C-Diff, dehydration, and malnutrition, which caused Brosius’ death.
Manor Care filed preliminary objections to the complaint seeking to have the wrongful death and survival claims compelled to arbitration. This means that rather than have a jury decide whether Manor Care was negligent and, if so, the amount of damages to award on the wrongful death and survival claims, an impartial third-party would be the one to decide negligence and damages.
The trial court denied the preliminary objection citing the constitutional right of wrongful death beneficiaries to a jury trial and Pennsylvania’s interest in litigating wrongful death and survival claims together.
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania found the trial court did not err and that its recent decisions (Tuomi v. Extendicare, Inc., 119 A.3d 1030 (Pa. Super. 2015), Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2015), and Taylor v. Extendicare Health Facilities, Inc., 113 A.3d 317 (Pa. Super. 2015), appeal granted, 122 A.3d 1036 (Pa. 2015)) directly controlled the appeal.
In sum, if you have a loved one that passes away due to the negligence of a nursing home and the nursing home seeks to have claims of negligence arbitrated, you do not need to give in to to the nursing home. Rather, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has made clear that the claims can proceed before a jury.
Published: May 20, 2016
By: Richard Ogrodowski
In Pennsylvania, if you are an adult child and lose a parent due to an accidental or wrongful death, you need to show that you suffered a pecuniary loss in order to be a wrongful death beneficiary.
There is no requirement that the adult child has to live at home with the parent in order to recover wrongful death proceeds. But, as stated above, the adult child must prove a pecuniary loss. Pecuniary loss can be established by proving gifts, financial benefits, support, and services to the adult child with such frequency that it is reasonably certain they would continue had the parent not died due to an accidental or wrongful death.
As I have previously discussed in my blog postings, there is a difference between a wrongful death action and a survival action. The survival action, under 42 Pa. C.S. Section 8302, is brought on behalf of the decedent’s estate to benefit the estate. It involves claims the decedent could have brought during his or her lifetime. The distribution of any damages recovered in a survival action go through the estate and are distributed pursuant to the decedent’s will, or if no will exists, then the damages are distributed pursuant to Pennsylvania’s intestacy statutes, 20 Pa. C.S. § 2101 et al.
The wrongful death action is different. Pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. Section 8301, only certain designated beneficiaries may recover for personal damages resulting from the decedent’s wrongful or accidental death. Children of the deceased is one category of potential beneficiaries that is included in the wrongful death statute. But, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has stated that for a wrongful death beneficiary to recover, they must suffer a pecuniary loss. See Gaydos v. Domabyl, 152 A. 549, 551-552 (Pa. 1990).
Recently, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania addressed the issue of adult children as wrongful death beneficiaries. In Campbell v. A.O. Smith Corp., 2016 WL 1625766 (Pa. Super. Apr. 25, 2016), the court found that the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County did not err in finding that the adult children of a decedent were not wrongful death beneficiaries. In Campbell, the decedent developed mesothelioma and sued over two dozen companies alleging exposure to asbestos. The decedent died during the pending lawsuit and the complaint was amended to include a wrongful death action. The decedent died with a will and left all of his estate to his second wife, despite having five adult children still living from his first marriage. The second wife pursued the wrongful death and survival actions.
Eventually, the second wife settled with the defendants. She filed a petition to have the settlements approved and to allocate the settlement proceeds between the wrongful death and survival action. The petition also sought to determine whether the adult children qualified as wrongful death beneficiaries or if the second wife was the only beneficiary.
The trial found that none of the adult children proved a pecuniary loss and that the second wife was the only wrongful death beneficiary. Specifically, the trial court found the decedent did not provide his adult children with “financial support, gifts, services, or any kind of pecuniary advantage with any kind of frequency.” Campbell at *6. Based on the evidence in the appellate record, the Superior Court concluded the trial court did not err.
Thus, although you might lose a parent due to a wrongful or accidental death, you need to be aware that in order to recover as a wrongful death beneficiary you must show a pecuniary loss.
Published: May 13, 2016
By: Richard Ogrodowski
The captains, pilots, engineers, deckhands, cooks etc. that work on the rivers are hardworking and dedicated to their jobs trying to earn a living for their families. As such, it is sad when you hear that one of those hardworking mariners is accidentally killed on the river.
Unfortunately, according to local media reports in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 11, 2016, two young men fishing on the Monongahela River near the Speers Bridge, which crosses the Monongahela River running between , Speers, Washington County, Pennsylvania, and North Belle Vernon, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, found the body of Jace Edward Sayre.
Jace Edward Sayre, who was from Chester, Hancock County, West Virginia, worked as an engineer on a towboat for Murray American Transportation, Inc. See Workboat.com article “Body of missing barge worker pulled from PA river” Murray American Transportation, Inc. is a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corporation (a coal mining company), which is based in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
Apparently, Sayre was reported missing earlier in the day by his coworkers on the towboat and could not be found after a search of the Monongahela River.