Friday, January 29, 2016

Impact of Waivers Executed By Decedent in Wrongful Death Claims Revisited by Superior Court

In its recent decision in the case of Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon, LLC, No. 3049 EDA 2013 (Pa. Super. Dec. 30, 2015 Ford Elliot, P.J.E., Olson, and Wecht, JJ.) (Opinion by Ford Elliot, P.J.E.), the Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed issues surrounding waiver or release forms as applied to wrongful death claims.  

This matter arose out an incident during which the Plaintiff’s decedent participated in a triathlon in Philadelphia.  The decedent signed a waiver form when he signed up to participate in the event.

During the event, the decedent never completed the swimming portion of the competition and his body was recovered from the Schuylkill River the day after the incident.  

Wrongful death and survival claims were pursued by the decedent’s widow.   The case was eventually concluded at the trial court level by way of the entry of a summary judgment based upon the waiver executed by the decedent. The Plaintiff’s estate appealed.  

On appeal, the Superior Court reviewed Pennsylvania law with respect to punitive damages claims and found that the trial court properly dismissed such claims at the Preliminary Objections stage given that the Plaintiff had alleged facts supporting claims for ordinary negligence.   Given that there were no facts to support a claim of outrageous behavior or conscious disregard for the risks confronted by triathlon participants, the appellate court ruled that the trial court properly dismissed the Plaintiff’s allegations of outrageous conduct and, therefore, had also properly struck the claim for punitive damages.  

On the waiver/release issue, upon which the trial court had granted summary judgment, it was noted that only the Plaintiff’s decedent had signed a release or waiver form when entering the competition.  

On appeal, the Plaintiffs initially argued, in part, that a Plaintiff cannot contractually waive liability for reckless or intentional conduct and that, as a result, any waiver executed in this case was invalid.  

The Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that, since it had already determined in this matter that the Plaintiff did not state valid claims involving reckless or intentional conduct, the Plaintiff’s contention in this regard could not serve to disturb the trial court’s ruling.  

The Plaintiff also asserted that, pursuant to the prior appellate court decision in the case of Pisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., 77 A.3d 651 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 86 A.3d 233 (Pa. Super. 2014), cert. denied, 134 S.Ct. 2890 (2014), a decedent’s waiver is ineffective as to third-party wrongful death claims. 

The appellate court found that the Plaintiff’s argument regarding the Pisano case to be dispositive.  The court determined that the Plaintiff’s widow could maintain a wrongful death cause of action and is not bound by the decedent’s release given that the Plaintiff pursuing the case was not a signatory of that waiver form.  

Similar to the finding in the Pisano case, the court ruled that a waiver form was not binding on the representative of the decedent’s estate as wrongful death claims are not considered to be derivative of the decedent’s rights under Pennsylvania law.   Rather, the right of action belongs to the statutory wrongful death claim claimants, not the decedent.

In the court in this Valentino case went on to note, as explained in the Pisano decision, that, in Pennsylvania, survival and wrongful death actions are separate and distinct and that wrongful death lawsuits are not merely derivative of the rights of the decedent.  

Accordingly, following the Pisano case, the Valentino court concluded that the decedent’s release agreement/waiver form signed when entering the competition did not bind the Plaintiff’s widow/representative of his estate and did not preclude her from bringing a wrongful death action.  

Rather, as confirmed by Pisano, the wrongful death action is an independent cause of action, created by statute, and is not to be considered to be derivative of the decedent’s rights at the time of death.   The release agreement/waiver form was noted to only be between the decedent and the competition and was found to have no effect on the decedent’s non-signatory heirs, including the Plaintiff’s decedent’s widow, who brought this lawsuit.  

As such, the underlying claim was allowed to proceed.
Anyone wishes to review the majority Opinion of Superior Court Judges Ford Elliot and Wecht, may click this LINK.

The dissenting Opinion of Judge Olson can be viewed HERE

 I send thanks to Attorney James Beck of the Philadelphia office of Reed Smith for bringing this case to my attention.   

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