Thursday, December 3, 2020

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Addresses Standards for Survival and Wrongful Death Claims

In the case of McMichael v. McMichael, No. 50 and 51 WAP 2019 (Pa. Nov. 18, 2020 Todd. J.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a trial court abused its discretion in denying a Motion for a New Trial following a jury award of $0 in damages on one of the elements of damages in a wrongful death action. 

According to the Opinion, the Plaintiffs entered in a lease with a Defendant under which the Defendant was to install a natural gas pipeline on the Plaintiff’s property. The lease required that Defendant to hire a company owned by the Plaintiff to perform tree clearing on the property in preparation for the installation of the pipeline.

That landscaping company hired the Plaintiff’s nephew and others to perform the work. While the nephew/decedent was supervising the tree clearing process, he was struck by a tree and fatally injured.

A lawsuit was filed and the case proceeded to trial. The jury ultimately awarded the decedent’s estate $225,000.00 in survival damages, which was reduced to $135,000.00 to reflect the jury’s finding that the decedent was 40% negligent. The court awarded $0 on the wrongful death claim.

Upon review, the Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that the trial court had erred in denying a new trial with respect to the non-economic damages award. The case was remanded for a new trial limited to the issue of non-economic damages to be potentially awarded to the Plaintiff.

In its decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court provides a nice distinction between survival damages and wrongful death damages.

With regards to the jury’s verdict of $0 in damages for the wrongful death claim, the court noted that it was undisputed that the Plaintiff did not present any evidence of medical, funeral, or estate administrative expenses. The court noted that the Plaintiff’s potential recovery in this regard was therefore limited to the loss of the decedent’s services. The court noted that the Plaintiff had produced evidence in this regard in terms of how the decedent performed home repairs, mowed the lawn, did most of the cooking, and drove his wife to work when the weather was bad. 

It was noted, however, that neither the wife nor any economic expert retained, testified as to an estimate as to the value of these contributions or services, or the cost of hiring somebody else to perform these tasks. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that, in the absence of any evidence as to the economic value of these contributions, the jury would have been forced to engage in speculation regarding the value of these services. 

As such, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s denial of any new trial for any economic damages. 

However, as noted, the request for a new trial with respect to the non-economic damages relative to the wife’s loss of her husband of thirty (30) years was granted.

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

Justice Mundy's Concurring and Dissenting Opinion can be viewed HERE.

Justice Dougherty's Dissenting Opinion can be viewed HERE

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