Although the Dead Man’s Rule most often comes into play with estate cases, it can also be used by the defense in personal injury and wrongful death cases under certain circumstances. If you have a personal injury claim against someone who has since died, it is important that you be aware of this rule and how it can affect your case.
Dead Man’s Rule
The Dead Man’s Rule is part of the substantive law (not a rule of evidence) and is codified at 42 Pa.C.S.A. §5930. It is often used to prevent certain evidence from being allowed during a civil trial when the defendant has passed away. For example, there may be instances where your testimony against the decedent is not allowed based on the idea that if the decedent cannot testify, then neither can you. This law is based on the concern that other witnesses with a vested interest in the trial will be tempted to lie because the decedent can no longer testify on their own behalf. It can also apply to certain kinds of evidence, again because the decedent cannot testify regarding it.
However, while the Dead Man’s Rule can prevent some types of testimony and evidence from being admitted in a civil case, the decedent’s own testimony can be used against him or her.
Example of Using the Dead Man’s Rule
In January of 2020, a Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that a woman’s personal injury claim against her landlord was barred because he had passed away. The plaintiff suffered a serious fall, resulting in several broken bones, and involved stairs that she contends her landlord had failed to maintain properly. Within a year of the incident, the landlord had passed away and could not be directly sued. The plaintiff then filed a personal injury claim against the administrator of the landlord’s estate.
The defense team invoked the Dead Man’s Rule, arguing that he would not be able to present counter testimony and attempted to block her claim. The case ended up before the Pennsylvania Superior Court, where the plaintiff argued that her landlord had not witnessed her fall and the defendant’s case would not be adversely affected by his lack of testimony. The court, however, did not agree with her and stated that her request went against the intent of a clearly worded law.
Dead Man’s Rule Does Not Always Apply
Just because the defense may try to use the Dead Man’s Rule to say that you will not be able to prevent enough evidence to substantiate your claim does not mean that their tactic will work. Let us suppose that you were seriously injured in a car accident. The defendant submitted a very incriminating signed statement to his insurance company and was overheard by coworkers talking about how he had been distracted when the accident occurred. You decide to file a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant, but before the case comes to trial the defendant dies of a heart attack. At that time, his estate is substituted in place of the defendant and you plan to pursue the claim.
The defense files a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing the Dead Man’s Rule applies, and you do not have enough evidence to support your claim because of that. However, your legal team responds that the rule does not bar the evidence related to the testimony of the decedent’s coworker or the decedent’s statement after the accident. If their argument is successful and the court agrees that the rule does not apply, then your case can continue.
When the Dead Man’s Statute Applies
If the Dead Man’s Statute is prohibiting evidence in your personal injury case, remember that independent evidence, such as medical records and certain witnesses, may still be allowed. For example, police reports and medical records would still be admissible evidence. And when it comes to witnesses, 3rd party eyewitnesses and physicians who provided accident-related treatment to you would be eligible witnesses. Also keep in mind that the decedent may not be the only defendant in your personal injury case, so there may be other avenues by which you can seek fair compensation.
What Should You Do?
If you or a loved one has filed a personal injury claim only to find out that the plaintiff has since died, then you need the advice of a lawyer on how best to proceed. Just because the plaintiff is now dead does not mean that the Dead Man’s Rule applies and your case is a lost cause; it may make proving your case more challenging but not necessarily impossible like the defense would no doubt have you believe. And although the defense may file a Motion for Summary Judgment, this does not mean that it will be the end of your claim. An experienced personal injury lawyer knows the laws that were made to protect victims in your situation and can put those laws to use.
Donaghue & Labrum
The personal injury trial lawyers at Donaghue & Labrum will put our decades of experience to work on your behalf. We want to see you get the compensation that the law says you deserve and will fight for your rights. If you want to find out what your options are when the plaintiff of your personal injury claim has since passed away, contact us today for a free consultation.