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A brief summary of the law of wrongful death and its application

Whenever a person dies as a result of the negligent act of another party, that person's family may have a wrongful death claim against the allegedly negligent party. Wrongful death seems pretty straightforward, yet it is a legal standard, meaning that Pennsylvania judges will weigh the legal merits of a wrongful death case when hearing cases and making rulings.

When a wrongful death case makes the news, oftentimes it is when the defendant in a homicide case is sued for wrongful death in civil court. Although these cases tend to grab the headlines, in reality the majority of wrongful death cases stem from matters such as drunk driving accidents and other car accidents, medical malpractice, construction zone and other workplace accidents and dangerous pharmaceuticals and other consumer products.

When plaintiffs bring wrongful death actions, they often also bring a survival action against the defendant. A survival action allows the plaintiff to step into the shoes of the deceased person and attempt to recover for pain and suffering and other damages allegedly suffered by the victim before their death.

The standard of proof is lower for a wrongful death civil case than for a criminal homicide case. In a wrongful death case, a plaintiff has to prove their case by a "preponderance of the evidence." This means they only have to prove that it was more likely than not that the defendant was negligent in the death of the victim. This is a less strict standard than in a criminal case, where the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Source: FindLaw, "Wrongful Death Resources," accessed on July 15, 2017

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