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Life after Death: Superior Court Rules Waivers Do Not Apply to Wrongful Death Actions (PA)

January 15, 2016

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A recent decision from the Pennsylvania Superior Court revived a wrongful death action previously dismissed on the basis of a waiver of liability, holding instead that such waivers do not apply to surviving spouses under the applicable statutory regime.
In <em><a href="http://blog.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Valentino-v.-Philadelphia-Triathlon.pdf" rel="">Valentino v. Philadelphia Triathlon</a></em>, the decedent participated in a June 2010 triathlon hosted by defendant Philadelphia Triathlon and conducted, in part, along the Schuylkill River.  As part of his participation in the triathlon, the decedent was required to preregister for the event and execute a waiver and release form absolving Philadelphia Triathlon from any liability arising out of death or bodily injury.  Unfortunately, during the course of the swimming portion of the triathlon, the decedent drowned in the Schuylkill River where his body was ultimately recovered the next day.
In or about April 2012, the decedent’s widow filed a wrongful death and survival action naming, among others, Philadelphia Triathlon as a defendant.  While preliminary objections removed all defendants but Philadelphia Triathlon from the case, the trial court eventually granted summary judgment in its favor on the basis that the waiver and release form barred the widow’s action in its entirety.
On appeal, the widow argued that the trial court improperly sustained preliminary objections and wrongfully granted summary judgment.  In respect of the latter alleged error, the widow argued in part that summary judgment was inappropriate on the basis of the waiver and release form because Pennsylvania law does not apply the limitations therein to third-parties suing under the Commonwealth’s wrongful death statute.  In ultimately adopting this reasoning, the Superior Court explained that because Pennsylvania’s cause of action for wrongful death is statutory, it belongs exclusively to the beneficiary and is not derivative of the decedent’s own claims.  Moreover, inasmuch as the wrongful death claims are not “passed on” by the decedent, the Superior Court went on to state that any waivers or limitations executed by the decedent in respect of his own claims during life did not inure to the detriment of widows or other beneficiaries attempting to enforce their own causes of action.  Consequently, the Superior Court overturned the trial court’s summary judgment order and remanded for further proceedings.
The Superior Court’s decision in <em>Valentino</em> reaffirms and highlights subtle distinctions between Pennsylvania’s wrongful death and survival statutes insofar as the former allows beneficiaries to recover their own damages because of the loss of a loved one and the latter merely preserves the decedent’s own right to recovery.   Thanks to Adam Gomez for his contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:bgibbons@wcmlaw.com">Brian Gibbons</a> with any questions.

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