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Decedent’s Estate Sues For Wrongful Death in Pennsylvania

In a recent non-precedential wrongful death decision, a Pennsylvania woman’s estate  cross-appealed from the trial court’s order granting a new trial to determine punitive damages under the Survival Act and compensatory damages for loss of society, comfort and companionship under the Wrongful Death Act. The case arose when a 31-year-old woman who had cerebral palsy and impaired mental ability died. She had lived in a residential facility for years. She could express emotions, but couldn’t speak or walk.

A 7-year employee of the residential facility was involved in a car accident while driving a van for his job. The decedent was a passenger in the van. The employee and the other driver did not call the police. Instead, the employee called the group home and told them about the accident. At the facility, a group home worker noticed red marks on the decedent’s abdomen but neither documented them, nor contacted a doctor.

Around 7am the group home worker saw the red marks had darkened. She was supposed to report even minor scrapes. Because the decedent had a doctor’s appointment in place for later that morning, the facility worker did not report this.

The decedent and group home worker left the group home for an appointment at a medical clinic. On the way, the decedent started whimpering and moaning. At the hospital, the group home worker told the staff about the moaning, but not about the car accident the day before.

Hospital personnel admitted the decedent into the ER of the hospital because she had abnormal vital signs. Her lips were white, her face was yellow and she was cold. The group home supervisor relieved the worker and later testified she had never heard the decedent moaning like that. The supervisor was told they would perform an MRI and CAT scan and she left.

When the supervisor came back and was asked by hospital staff how the decedent had gotten hurt, she wouldn’t answer because she was taught to cover herself. She told the Vice President the decedent was in bad shape. A few hours later, a doctor told them the decedent’s liver was lacerated. Finally they told the doctor that the car accident was the probable cause of the decedent’s injuries.  They told the decedent’s family she was in the hospital.

Surgery, resuscitation and emergency surgery were performed. The decedent was pronounced dead several hours later. Her aunt and legal guardian sued for medical malpractice.

An expert testified that the group home’s actions failed to adhere to the standard of care. Among other failures, they did not have policies and procedures in place in case of a car accident, did not have trained individuals to take care of the decedent or take her to the ER or to notify her family and the Department of Public Welfare after the accident.

The estate also had an expert to testify the decedent’s liver was injured due to the motor vehicle collision. A cerebral palsy expert testified that the decedent would have experienced significant pain from the laceration of her liver. Family members testified about the decedent’s emotions and what they had lost in losing her—she made people feel good.

The jury found the group home facility and the van driver were negligent and found the group home’s conduct outrageous, awarding damages of over $3.1 million. $100,000 in punitive damages were award.

The group home and van driver asked for a new trial. The trial court permitted a new trial for determination of damages, but that was it. They appealed. They argued that a judgment notwithstanding the verdict should have been granted for the wrongful death case because the decedent was physically unable to offer services to her mother and all her mother suffered was grief.

The appellate court explained that if a verdict were reasonably related to proven damages it would not be disturbed. It upheld the jury’s verdict, finding it was supported by the record and wasn’t the result of prejudice or caprice. Accordingly, it concluded the trial court had erred as a matter of law in overturning the verdict.

The court further explained that a punitive damages claim had to be supported by evidence that established the defendant subjectively appreciated the risk of harm and failed to act or acted in conscious disregard of the risk. The court order was affirmed in all respects except as to the lower court’s decision to throw out the jury’s award of wrongful death damages.

An experienced Pennsylvania workers’ compensation attorney can evaluate the facts of your particular case if you are hurt because of an entity’s negligence and bring a lawsuit on your behalf if appropriate. Contact the attorneys at Needle Law Firm at 570-344-1266 or via our online form for a free consultation.

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