Wrongful Death and the Sovereign Immunity Act

On March 12, in the wrongful death suit in the case of J Ebersole, Administrator of the Estate of S.J. Ebersole, Deceased v. SEPTA, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania decided that the Sovereign Immunity Act prevents an agency like the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) from being liable for non-pecuniary damages (damages that are related to companionship, love, guidance, emotional harm, consortium, etc.).

Stephanie Ebersole was killed on August 12, 2012 when she fell from the train platform at the South-Lombard Station in Philadelphia and was electrocuted. Unable to get up from the tracks, she was eventually struck by a train, causing her death. The wrongful death suit, brought by her parents, sought non-pecuniary damages for Stephanie’s death, and the trial court allowed Ebersole’s family to pursue these claims. SEPTA appealed, arguing that the Sovereign Immunity Act bars parents from recovering non-pecuniary damages from a child’s death, and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently agreed.

Wrongful Death Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §8301

The Wrongful Death Act allows for an action to be brought to recover damages for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act, neglect, unlawful violence, or negligence of another if the individual injured was not able to recover the same damages during their lifetime. The law allows beneficiaries (including the spouse, children, or parents) to recover damages for reasonable hospital, nursing, medical, funeral expenses and expenses of administration necessitated by reason of injuries causing death.

In Ebersole’s case, SEPTA argued that, under the Sovereign Immunity Act, Stephanie’s parents were not entitled to funeral expenses or non-pecuniary losses because damages like these were barred by sovereign immunity. The Commonwealth Court relied on a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case—Department of Public Welfare v, Schultz (Pa. 2004) – in agreeing with SEPTA that a parent cannot bring an action for non-pecuniary losses against a Commonwealth agency. In doing so, the court reversed the previous ruling by Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and reaffirmed that suits against the Commonwealth are permissible only where the legislature has expressly waived immunity. In addition, even if they have waived immunity, only certain types of damages may be recovered under the Sovereign Immunity Act. These damages include loss of earnings, pain and suffering, medical expenses, loss of consortium (only for a spouse), and property losses.

However, the court also said that its decision only applied to wrongful death suits affected by the Sovereign Immunity Act. If the suit had been filed against a private entity, damages could have been recovered.

Pennsylvania Wrongful Death Lawyers at Solnick & Associates

In Pennsylvania, wrongful death actions must be commenced within two years of the death of your loved one. If you or your family have lost a loved one due to the negligent or reckless actions of another, including a SEPTA bus or train, Solnick & Associates can help you obtain justice.  We have helped families of those killed in auto accidents, industrial accidents, or from the use of defective products, recover wrongful death benefits. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.