In 2005, Frank Capone sued the tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris USA Inc. for personal injuries, including lung cancer, which he alleged were caused by their products. Sadly, in 2006, during the course of the proceedings, Mr. Capone died. His widow, Karen, in her capacity as his personal representative then tried to convert the action to a wrongful death claim by amending the complaint. This amendment was refused and the case was dismissed. In a recent majority decision, the Florida’s Supreme Court overturned the dismissal. In doing so, the Supreme Court resolved a conflict between the lower courts as to whether a personal injury action can be converted to a wrongful death claim.
What Happens to a Personal Injury Claim if the Plaintiff Dies?
Perhaps surprisingly, until this Supreme Court decision, there had been much uncertainty as to the correct procedure to be followed when a personal injury results in death. One court interpreted Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, which states that a pending personal injury action “shall abate,” to mean that the action terminates. The Supreme Court disagreed with this interpretation and, after examining dictionary definitions of the word “abate” and the legislative intent, sided with the court that held that the action is merely suspended.
What Does the Supreme Court Ruling Mean in Practice?
For the personal representative of a personal injury plaintiff who died during the course of proceedings, legal matters have become simpler. Instead of having to commence a completely fresh wrongful death action, you can now amend the existing complaint and convert the action to a wrongful death claim. When the cause of death is disputed, you may pursue a claim for survival damages or wrongful death in the alternative.