Monday, February 11, 2019

A Suit Against a Dead Person Can Be Killed by the Statute of Limitations

In the case of Murphey v. Krajewski, No. 18-CV-1541 (C.P. Lacka. Co. Jan. 25, 2019 Nealon, J.), the court granted preliminary objections and dismissed a Complaint that had been filed against a deceased defendant.

According to the Opinion, this personal injury matter arose out of a motor vehicle accident.  Unbeknownst to the Plaintiff or his counsel, the defendant tortfeasor passed away a few months after the accident.  Thereafter, the Plaintiff filed suit against the deceased tortfeasor defendant, still not realizing that he had passed away.  The Complaint was filed four days prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Judge Terrence R. Nealon
Lackawanna County

Judge Nealon confirmed the well-settled rule of law that a lawsuit filed against a deceased person is a legal nullity and the filing of such a lawsuit does not serve to toll the statute of limitations.  The court noted that the Plaintiff never opened an estate for the decedent or had a personal representative appointed on behalf of the decedent's estate prior to filing suit.

The court also noted that, once a statute of limitations expires, a personal representative of the estate cannot be substituted as a party defendant because the claim is time barred.  As such, the preliminary objections of the defendant were sustained and the Complaint was dismissed.

Anyone wishing to review this decision by Judge Nealon may click this LINK.

In the case of Vasquez v. Estate of Mosier, No. 766-CV-2018 (C.P. Monroe Co. Nov. 30, 2018 Williamson, J.), the court addressed the identical issue pertaining to how to handle pleadings when a party Defendant died before the litigation was commenced. 

More specifically, this matter arose out of a motor vehicle accident and involved claims of personal injury by the Plaintiff against a Defendant driver.  That Defendant driver later passed away after the accident but before suit was commenced.  A personal representative was appointed as the estate of the deceased Defendant.

Thereafter, the Plaintiff filed a Writ of Summons four (4) days before the statute of limitations expired on the claims presented against the deceased Defendant driver.  

The court’s Management Order issued after suit was filed directed the Plaintiff to sue the personal representative of the decedent’s estate.  

In response, the Plaintiff filed a Petition for Substitution of Successor.   The Defendants filed objections to the Plaintiff’s Petition asserting that the Writ of Summons should be stricken for failure to designate a proper and legal entity as the Defendant.  

Plaintiffs countered with an argument that the substitution of the estate of the decedent in the place of the decedent was proper because the Defendant would not suffer any prejudice as the Plaintiff had properly preserved the action by timely filing a Writ of Summons.   The Plaintiff also asserted that the personal representative could not claim prejudice because he was aware of the litigation prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.  

In the alternative, the Plaintiff argued that, because the Writ was timely issued before the statute of limitations, the Plaintiff had until February, 2020 to reissue or serve it on any Defendants under 20 Pa. C.S.A. §3383.

Judge David J. Williamson
Monroe County

Judge Williamson disagreed with the Plaintiff’s analysis and noted that an attempt at a substitution of a successor was improper in this case because the suit was brought against a deceased person which was a nullity under the law.   Such a nullity could not be amended or cured by simply substituting parties.  

The court also found that the Plaintiff clearly knew of the decedent’s death because the Plaintiff had named the estate as a Co-Defendant.   The court found that the Plaintiff could have easily obtained information about the personal representative from the County Register of Wills office.  Judge Williamson noted that the Plaintiff’s failure to originally include the personal representative as a party Defendant meant that the Plaintiff had sued non-existent entities.  

Accordingly, Judge Williamson ruled that he was unable to grant the Petition to Substitute a Successor because the court was required to treat the Summons as if it had never existed given that it was a legal nullity.   It was additionally noted that the Plaintiff was unable to file a Praecipe for New Writ of Summons given that the statute of limitations had expired.  As such, the claim was dismissed. 

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK

Source: “Digests of Recent Opinions.”  Pennsylvania Law Weekly (Jan. 22, 2019). 

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