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Wrongful Death Claims Cannot Be Waived By the Decedent

In a recent 2013 opinion by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, it upheld the trial court’s determination that a Wrongful Death Claim belonged not to the deceased person but to the beneficiaries as provided under the Wrongful Death Statute.  Therefore, even though the deceased person had waived his rights to a trial by jury, the court determined the Wrongful Death Claim belonged not to the deceased person but to its beneficiaries.

On or about April 24, 2010, Vincent F. Pisano was admitted into a long term nursing facility, Extendicare Care Homes (hereafter “Extendicare”).  Shortly thereafter Mr. Pisano’s daughter, Jamie Pisano, operating under a valid Power of Attorney executed a document on her father’s behalf limiting any legal claims against Extendicare to binding arbitration as opposed to a jury trial.  A Power of Attorney is a legal document which, when properly drafted, allows one person to legally act on behalf of another.  Therefore, when Jamie Pisano executed an agreement with Extendicare she effectively waived Mr. Pisano’s right to a trial by jury for any legal claims Mr. Pisano may have against them.  On or about October 11, 2011, Vincent F. Pisano (hereinafter “Decedent”) passed away while in the care and custody of Extendicare.  Decedent’s son, Michael V. Pisano was the administrator of the estate.  When a person dies without a will, their possessions must be distributed to their surviving relatives or spouse in accordance with the rules of intestacy.  The court appoints a person, usually a close relative of the deceased person to divide the deceased person’s possessions or “estate.”  Had Decedent possessed a will, the executor would assume responsibility of dividing the assets according to Decedent’s wishes.  Importantly, both the administrator and the executor owe a special duty called a fiduciary duty to each person who stands to benefit under either the rules of intestacy or the terms of the will.  In this case, Michael V. Pisano, on behalf of the beneficiaries filed a Wrongful Death Claim against Extendicare attributing some aspect of Decedent’s death to a failure on the part of the nursing facility.

Michael Pisano on behalf of his father’s estate filed the Wrongful Death Claim in the court of common pleas requesting a jury be appointed to determine whether or not Extendicare was responsible for his father’s death and requesting compensation for his death.  Extendicare, relying on the agreement waiving Decedent’s right to a jury, challenged the trial court’s right to hear the case.  Specifically, Extendicare claimed that the case could only be heard before a panel of arbitrators consistent with the agreement executed by Jamie Pisano on behalf of her father.  The trial court disagreed with Extendicare, finding that because a Wrongful Death Claim necessarily arises after a person is deceased, the claim belongs not to the deceased person but to the beneficiaries under the Wrongful Death Statute.  Therefore, even though Decedent had waived his right to a jury trial the beneficiaries of his estate did not waive a right to a jury trial.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed this decision.

When reviewing legal documents, especially documents that claim to waive certain rights it is important to consult with an attorney.  Often times people depend on the wording of a legal agreement assuming it is legally enforceable and or valid even when it is not.  Had Michael Pisano relied on the bare language of the agreement executed on behalf of his father he would have mistakenly given up the estates right to a jury trial.

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