Litigation Alert – 03/05/2014
PA Supreme Court Ruling Favors Wrongful Death Plaintiffs
On February 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declined to hear the appeal ofPisano v. Extendicare Homes, Inc., effectively settling an important legal question regarding the scope of plaintiffs’ rights in wrongful death actions. In August the Superior Court determined that a decedent’s pre-death assent to a contractual arbitration provision, did notpreclude his daughter’s wrongful death action and require arbitration of her claim.
Extendicare Homes, Inc. involved a dispute over the death of patient at a long-term skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation facility called Belair Health & Rehabilitation Center. At the time of his admission to Belair, the decedent-patient’s daughter, with power of attorney, executed an agreement that required all disputes, arising thereunder, be submitted to binding arbitration. Following the patient’s death, his two surviving sons brought survival and wrongful death actions against Extendicare, the owner of the facility.
Extendicare filed an interlocutory appeal after the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County denied its preliminary objections which argued the trial court lacked jurisdiction due to the arbitration provision of the facility’s admissions agreement. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision in August of 2013. The Supreme Court’s decision, denying certiorari, effectively settles the issue in the Commonwealth for the time being.
Critical to the Superior Court’s analysis is the distinction between wrongful death and survival actions. Survival actions involve tort claims, belonging to the decedent, which are litigated on their behalf by the decedent’s personal representative. By contrast, wrongful death actions are tort claims, belonging to and carried out by certain surviving kin, including spouses, children, and parents, as specified in Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 8301.
The Superior Court clarified that while wrongful death actions are derivative in nature, i.e., the byproduct of the underlying tort, they are separate and distinct claims which involve an independent injury, i.e., the effect of the decedent’s death on his or her survivors and not the injury the decedent in fact suffered. Thus, the Court concluded, “wrongful death actions are derivative of decedents’ injuries but are not derivative of decedents’ rights.”
As the rights of wrongful death plaintiffs are distinct from the rights of the decedent, the actions of the decedent cannot impinge upon the rights of would be claimants. InExtendicare Homes, Inc., only the decedent signed the agreement, thus, his claimant-survivors were not valid parties to the arbitration provision. The Court reasoned that this clear limitation of the decedent’s right to a jury trial could not similarly effect the rights of the plaintiffs. To hold otherwise, the Court noted, would violate not only contract principals, but the right to jury trials guaranteed by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions.
This case can be viewed as a victory for potential plaintiff-family members, who no longer need worry that the pre-death decisions of a decedent will impede or limit their legal rights and options. On the other hand, businesses and individuals hoping to limit exposure to wrongful death actions from a client, customer, or patient’s death, should be aware of the constraints on their ability to do so by contract and thus plan accordingly.
The Litigation Department, Gibson&Perkins, PC