Only spouse able to recover certain damages from PennDOT under Wrongful Death Act

By John Severance | Oct 11, 2017

HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court has ruled that some family members can't seek pecuniary damages from the state Department of Transportation under the Wrongful Death Act.

PennDOT has been sued by the estate of after a woman after vehicle accident caused her death. The Sept. 27 ruling affirmed a prior ruling that the estate also can't seek non-pecuniary damages under the act.

"The trial court held that decedent’s mother and daughters could not seek ‘non-pecuniary’ damages but could seek ‘pecuniary damages’ under the Wrongful Death Act for the loss of Decedent’s future services and financial contributions," the Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote. 

"PennDOT argues that these so-called pecuniary damages are barred by the provisions of the Judicial Code commonly known as the Sovereign Immunity Act. We agree and reverse the trial court’s order holding otherwise."

The case stemmed from an accident that occurred Feb. 21, 2015, when Trudy J. Trooner was a passenger in a vehicle that was involved in a fatal crash on state Route 3014 in Fayette County.

The vehicle was driven by Edward J. Ewing, who was heading north when a southbound vehicle lost control in the icy conditions, the ruling states. The southbound vehicle crossed the center line and collided with the vehicle that contained Ewing and Trooner. Trooner was killed at the scene and Ewing allegedly sustained serious injuries.

Trooner’s estate filed suit, bringing forth a claim under the Wrongful Death Act, alleging her death was caused by PennDOT because there was water on the road and it accumulated and froze, which caused the crash on state Road 3014.

The six-count complaint was filed by the estate, which consisted of husband Mark Zooner Sr. and daughter Tiffany Sawyers.

In its suit, the estate sued for lost income and financial support, deprivation of companionship and all expenses involving the death of Trudy Zooner.

PennDOT claimed that damages could only be recoverable by Trooner’s spouse and the "Sovereign Immunity Act bars decedent’s mother and daughters from recovering damages for the loss of future income and financial support,’’ the opinion said.

The trial court agreed with PennDOT, but ruled the estate could claim pecuniary damages.

The appeals court, though ruled in favor of PennDOT.

"We hold that the Sovereign Immunity Act bars a parent or child of a decedent from recovering damages in a wrongful death action for the loss of the decedent’s future services and financial support," the opinion said.

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