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Wrongful Death Damages are Limited by Estates Powers and Trusts Law

An Probate Lawyer said by appeal by the plaintiffs in an action to recover damages for conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death, from so much of an order of the Supreme Court, entered October 6, 2000, in Richmond County, as (1) granted that branch of the defendants’ motion which was for partial summary judgment dismissing the cause of action of Plaintiff MC to recover damages for the wrongful death of her brother, M, and (2) denied their motion for partial summary judgment, in effect, declaring that MC is permitted to assert a cause of action to recover damages for wrongful death.

An Estate Lawyer said it is well settled that the damages recoverable in a wrongful death action are limited by the Estates Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) to fair and just compensation for the pecuniary injuries suffered by the survivors of a decedent for whose benefit an action is commenced. These compensable damages include the loss of support, services, voluntary assistance, the prospect of inheritance, and the medical and funeral expenses. The question presented here is whether the beneficiary of a renunciation to the proceeds of a wrongful death action, as the next distributee in line, is limited in her recovery to the amount of pecuniary loss suffered by the renouncing party, or, whether, as the now sole distributee, she is entitled to recover for her own pecuniary losses resulting from the decedent’s death.

On July 2, 1998, M, a 26-year-old off-duty New York City Police Officer, died in a collision between his motorcycle and a motor vehicle owned by the defendant G, and operated by the defendant J. At the time of his death, the decedent was survived by his mother, D, and his 22-year-old sister, MC. The decedent died intestate.

On January 8, 1999, estate administration of the deceased was granted to MC, albeit limited. On January 14, 1999, MC, as the administratrix and on behalf of the distributees of the estate of M, commenced this action. The complaint alleged causes of action on behalf of the decedent’s mother, D, and his sister, MC, to recover damages for the conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death of the decedent.

An Westchester County Probate Lawyer said that on May 2, 2000, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment dismissing the wrongful death cause of action asserted by MC. The defendants argued that the only person entitled to recover damages for the decedent’s wrongful death was J, the sole surviving parent and distributee of the decedent’s estate. In opposition to the motion, the plaintiffs informed the defendants and the Supreme Court that J filed a petition in the Surrogate’s Court, renouncing all right, title, and interest to her distributive share of the decedent’s property, including any recovery for conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death in the instant action.

Suffolk County Probate Lawyers said the plaintiffs argued that the effect of the renunciation was as if J had predeceased the decedent, leaving MC as the next distributee entitled to recover damages for the pecuniary loss she suffered as a result of her brother’s death. The defendants argued in reply that the plaintiffs were attempting to artificially alter the value of the case by asserting that J’s renunciation had the effect of deeming that she had predeceased her son, thereby making MC the distributee. They argued that MC’s recovery should be limited to the pecuniary loss suffered by J.

The plaintiffs then moved for partial summary judgment declaring that MC was permitted to assert a cause of action to recover damages for wrongful death. The plaintiffs asserted that EPTL 2-1.11 does not limit, in any way, the amount of MC’s pecuniary loss to the distributive share to which J would have been entitled. As the next distributee in line, MC was entitled to assert a claim to recover damages for the pecuniary loss she herself suffered as a result of her brother’s death.

The difference in the amount of pecuniary loss claimed by the decedent’s young sister, as opposed to his mother, would be significant. After all, MC was only 22 years old at the time of her brother’s death. MC lived with the decedent who allegedly was fully supporting her. J, on the other hand, lived in her own home and there is no evidence that the decedent provided any financial support to his mother. In addition, MC sustained a loss of inheritance which J would probably be unable to claim. The decedent’s two life insurance policies and pension plan all named Michelle as the beneficiary. Had the decedent lived, Michelle’s inheritance would have greatly increased over time.

By order entered October 6, 2000, the Supreme Court granted the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment, denied the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, and severed and dismissed the cause of action of MC to recover damages for the wrongful death of her brother. The Supreme Court held that it was the decedent’s mother, and not his sister, who was the distributee for purposes of the wrongful death cause of action. This was error, and we now reverse the order and reinstate the cause of action to recover damages for wrongful death asserted on behalf of the plaintiff MC without limiting her to her mother’s loss as to the amount she is entitled to claim for the pecuniary loss she suffered as a result of her brother’s death.

At the time of M’s death, he was survived by his mother, J, and his sister, MC. For purposes of intestate succession, where a decedent dies intestate and is survived by one or both parents, and no spouse and no issue, all of the decedent’s property passes to the surviving parent or parents, regardless of the existence of siblings. Thus, J was the sole distributee of her son’s estate at the time of his death.

However, a beneficiary may renounce all or part of her distributive share in a decedent’s estate, including the potential proceeds of an action to recover damages for wrongful death. The renunciation is retroactive to the creation of the distribution, and has the same effect as if the renouncing distributee had predeceased the decedent. It is well settled that the right to renounce exists where the disposition to be renounced is an intestate share of a wrongful death recovery.

Because J renounced her share of the proceeds to be recovered from the wrongful death action, she is considered to have predeceased her son. Thus, the decedent’s sister, as his sole heir, is entitled to the entirety of any wrongful death proceeds recovered in the instant litigation.

The evidence in this case strongly indicates that the decedent was fully supporting his younger sister and intended her to be the beneficiary of his estate. Pecuniary losses to a decedent’s distributees which are recoverable in a wrongful death action include amounts the deceased might reasonably have been expected to spend for support and maintenance of these distributes. Thus, the defendants in a case such as the one at bar cannot benefit from a limitation on damages that the EPTL clearly does not impose. When J renounced all of her right, title, and interest to her distributive share of her son’s estate, including any proceeds recovered in the pending action for damages for her son’s conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death, MC became the sole heir as of the date of her brother’s death, entitled to recover damages for her own pecuniary loss. Accordingly, the order must be reversed.

To know more about your right to file damages for the wrongful death of your love ones, contact a Richmond County Estate Attorney at Stephen Bilkis & Associates. Our lawyers can provide a detailed summary of the damages you are entitled in these cases.

In addition, our Richmond County Estate Administration Attorneys are expert in all types of litigation involving the property of a deceased. Call us now and we will provide you legal consultation at no cost.

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