One the most basic legal principles is that statutes of limitations establish the time frames in which a civil suit can be brought in a given case and any attempt to bring suit outside of that time frame will inevitably result in the case being dismissed. For example, the statute of limitations for a personal injury matter is two years from the date the injury is, or should be, discovered (see: 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5524(1), (2), and (3)) and, for the most part, bringing a personal injury matter beyond that two year deadline will be cause to dismiss the claim.
One of the possible exceptions to the application of statutes of limitations is if the defendant dies during the pendency of the limitations period. As with any complaint, it is the duty of a plaintiff “to use all reasonable diligence to properly inform himself of the facts and circumstances upon which the right of recovery is based and then institute suit within the prescribed period,” and that includes determining whether the defendant is living or dead at the time of suit. Lange v. Burd, 800 A2d 336 (Pa.Super. 2002).
Generally speaking, a dead person cannot be sued or be a party to an action Montanya v. McGonegal, 757 A.2d 947 (Pa.Super.2000); Lange v. Burd, 800 A2d 336 (Pa.Super. 2002). However, 20 Pa.C.S.A. §3383 carves out an exception to this general rule permitting a dead person to be sued within one year after his death. §3383 goes on to say that its terms ought not be construed to shorten a two year statute of limitations period. Therefore, hypothetically speaking based on the above, if someone died on the day a plaintiff discovered his injury, then the plaintiff would have two years to bring suit against the deceased. At the other end of the spectrum, if someone died on the last day of the two year statute of limitations, then the plaintiff would have an additional year to bring suit against that defendant (for a total of three years). Finally, if someone died during the statutory two year period, the last date a plaintiff could bring suit against the deceased could be either the last day of the two year statutory period or the last day of the one year period stated in §3383 above, whichever came later. Longo v. Longo v. Estep, 289 Pa.Super. 19 (1981); Rylee et ux. v. Nicoll’s Administrator, 74 Pa.D.&C. 269 (1950); Telford Coal Company v. Prothero et al., 24 Pa.D.&.C. 183 (1935).
After considering the above, the obvious question arises as to whether one can substitute another party (e.g.: an estate) for the deceased defendant in order to pursue a plaintiff’s claims. According to applicable case law, one may bring suit against a decedent’s estate in order to pursue claims that would have otherwise been against the decedent himself if he were alive. If a complaint is filed against a deceased person, it must be withdrawn and refiled against his estate instead. Montanya v. McGonegal, 757 A.2d 947 (Pa.Super.2000). The refiled complaint against the estate is subject to the same applicable statutes of limitations stated above for the decedent. See Montanya. The filing of a complaint against the deceased, instead of his estate, does not serve to toll the running of statutes of limitations described above in order to permit an action against the decedent’s estate after the expiration of statutes of limitations described above. See Lange.
The only way around the above statutes of limitations is to argue that there was some sort of fraud or intentional concealment of the death of the defendant which served to unfairly prejudice plaintiff in his attempt to bring suit. See Lange. The plaintiff does not have to prove that fraud or concealment was intentional, just simply that the opposing party’s conduct served to conceal the death of the defendant. See Montanya. When arguing that the opposing party committed fraud and/or concealed the death of the defendant, it should be noted that silence on the part of the opposing party is insufficient to constitute fraud or concealment. As a result, an insurance company or party failing to volunteer the information that the defendant is dead at any time – or even accepting service for the deceased at his residence – during the life of the claim and/or suit will not constitute fraud or concealment. See Montanya. The fraud or concealment must be the result of an affirmative action; consequently a passive action (e.g.: taking no action at all) is not an affirmative action. See Montanya. Moreover, the plaintiff has the burden of proving the fraud and/or concealment with clear and convincing evidence.
Although Pennsylvania law may provide a case with a little more life after the death of a defendant, ultimately statutes of limitations will apply to kill a case even if the death of a defendant did not do it already.
Originally published on June 24, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer Blog and can be seen here.