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Wrongful Death Proceeds May Be Recovered by Adult Emancipated Child

On December 6, 2006, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania found that an emancipated daughter of a decedent suffered a pecuniary loss when her deceased father had provided gifts to her in the past with sufficient frequency that she had a reasonable expectation that the gifts would continue in the future. In the Matter of the Estate of Laird M. Wolfe, 915 A.2d 1197, 2006 Pa. Super. 350 (Pa. Super. December 6, 2006).

The case arose following the death of Laird Wolfe in a traffic accident. He was survived by his second wife and a daughter from a previous marriage. After initiating a wrongful death and survival action against the responsible party a settlement was reached. $600,000 of the settlement was allocated to the wrongful death action and the second wife sought to have the entire amount distributed to her. The daughter countered with her own petition seeking distribution of her intestate share of the proceeds. The Orphans' Court denied the daughter's petition finding that she had not shown that she suffered a pecuniary loss.

In a 2-1 decision, the Superior Court reversed. It found that pecuniary loss was shown by the daughter in that she was the beneficiary of decedent's pension plan and a retirement account, the decedent visited her approximately twice a month and always brought a gift of money or property, he intended to pay for the college education of his grandson, and through the years, he helped pay for his daughter's education, vacations, cars, housing and insurance, to name a few. Given these facts, the court found that the daughter did in fact suffer a pecuniary loss as such gifts could reasonably be expected to continue in the future.

The dissent, agreeing with the Orphans' Court, found that on these facts, appellant did not establish a pecuniary loss due to the fact that appellant was self supporting and was not dependent on her father. Furthermore, the dissent found the more current gifts to be "occasional in nature" and were not anticipatory in nature because the daughter did not know what she would get when her father visited. She could get dinner one time, and a hundred dollars in cash the next visit and thus concluded she did not suffer a pecuniary loss.

Addressing the dissent's position, the majority argued that a holding requiring gifts in the nature of support would be contrary to the Supreme Court's holding in Gaydos v. Domabyl, 301 Pa. 523, 152 A. 549 (1930), which held that an adult child can establish pecuniary loss through gifts if the gifts were given with consistency and continuance. Furthermore, in regard to the dissent's opinion that the gifts were "occasional in nature" and lacked evidence of continuation, the majority pointed out, which the dissent failed to address, the fact that decedent intended to pay for his grandson's college education. The majority concluded, "if appellant cannot share in proceeds of her father's wrongful death action, no adult child could ever do so."

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