This is the first opportunity in which the attorney is able to meet the family members who suffered a great and tragic loss. Although it is a tragedy to lose a loved one, it is the attorney's job to find out whether the victim died as a result of the careless or wrongful conduct of another person or entity or if it was an unavoidable tragedy. The mere fact that someone dies does not make a case. As in all personal injury claims, there must be a cause and effect resulting in injury. Without evidence of negligence, wrongdoing or defect, there is no case.
The Information Gathered
The commencement of the case begins with the initial interview. All background information concerning the deceased victim should be obtained. Information must be obtained including name, address, date of birth, social security number, employment background and health history; whether there is a will or if he or she died intestate, the list of survivors and their relationship to the deceased victim.
Information concerning the survivors or beneficiaries is the most important evidence to be gathered during the initial interview. The status of the beneficiary alone has tremendous legal consequences, but also affects the attorney's ability to represent the claims made on behalf of the estate. Under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death statute, only those individuals who were dependent on the deceased for care and support are entitled to recover damages. Although a spouse is at all times considered being dependent beneficiary under this law, emancipated children, who derive no support from the parent, would not be considered survivors entitled to damages under the law. Therefore, the attorney must obtain all information about those relatives or dependents who relied upon the support and maintenance of the deceased victim during his or her lifetime.
The Interview's Purpose
Information regarding the survivors is important to determine whether you represent the proper parties. Although law does not require it, it is advisable and far more preferable to represent the estate and its administrator or executor rather than the group of family members suing on behalf of the estate. Under Pennsylvania law, if the estate does not bring a timely action within six months of death against the wrongdoer under the Pennsylvania Wrongful Death and Survival statutes, the beneficiaries have a right to file a lawsuit on behalf of the estate. Pa.R.C.P. 2202(b). For instance, you may have been contacted and interviewed the emancipated children of a deceased corporate executive who is also survived by a wife and minor children from a second marriage. This situation would create a major conflict at any future litigation. Therefore, it is essential to represent the interests of not only the administrator of the estate but also those family members who are entitled to recover damages under the wrongful death statute.
Unless there is a separate attorney handling the estate of the deceased victim, the attorney handling the wrongful death and survival claims must also open the estate. It is essential to obtain all information concerning the beneficiaries as well as other information required in the forms to be filed with the Register of Wills. You must obtain the original will and need to file the same with the Register of Wills. In the event that there is no will left by the decedent, obtain the appropriate waivers from the beneficiaries to designate a representative to act as the Administrator. The required forms can be obtained from the Register of Wills for the County for which the estate will be opened.
Other Interview Goals
At the initial interview, it is also essential to obtain all information concerning the victim's earning history and support he or she provided to the family. You must obtain copies of tax returns as well as any information regarding pension plans and other fringe benefits provided to the deceased during his or her lifetime. This information will be important in preparation of an economic loss report. Although there is presumption of support for a spouse and minor children, it is important to obtain all information concerning any support provided to adult children or relatives (i.e., parents, brothers or sisters).
Aside from the background and estate information, the attorney must be fully aware of the facts surrounding the death. First, obtain information concerning those agencies that may have investigated the facts surrounding the death. Identify the police department, paramedics and hospital that treated the decedent prior to his or her death. The initial interview creates the foundation for any investigation, which would lead to proof of both liability and damages.
The interviewer should obtain a complete chronology of events leading to the tragedy. Identify all witnesses as well as those individuals who arrived after the incident. Find out if there were any photographs taken of the scene or the present condition of the area where the tragedy occurred. Try to obtain as much information to assist the investigator in filling in the pieces of puzzle.
After The Interview
Following the initial interview, it is also helpful to have the family bring as many photographs of the victim taken before the tragedy. Family photographs and videos play an essential part of the proof of any wrongful death case. This evidence will eventually be used to chronicle the life and times of a very special person whose loss affected the family not only financially but also emotionally and spiritually as well. The loved one is not merely a picture in a photograph but a living, breathing human being who had his/her life tragically cut short by the wrongful conduct of another.