A personal injury lawsuit typically concerns a person who suffers some sort of non-fatal injury in an accident or other incident, while a wrongful death action centers around claims on behalf of a person who ultimately dies. So what happens when a person files a personal injury action and then later dies as a result of those injuries? The Florida Supreme Court addressed the issue in Capone v. Philip Morris.
Mr. and Mrs. Capone sued Philip Morris and other cigarette companies under theories of negligence, strict liability and fraud, claiming that their products caused Mr. Capone's lung cancer along with other cardiovascular maladies. Mr. Capone later died while the matter was pending, and his wife sought to amend the complaint to substitute herself as the plaintiff and allege an additional claim for wrongful death. After protracted litigation, a trial court denied the motions to amend and substitute. The Third District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, finding that Mr. Capone's personal injury suit was automatically extinguished by virtue of his death and therefore could not be amended.
The Florida Supreme Court reversed the decision on appeal, however. "At issue in this case is the interplay between two different causes of action under the Florida Statutes: the survival action statute, section 46.021, Florida Statutes (2008), and the Florida Wrongful Death Act," the court explained. The survival statute provides that "no cause of action dies with the person." The Wrongful Death Act, on the other hand, states "[w]hen a personal injury to the decedent results in death, no action for the personal injury shall survive, and any such action pending at the time of death shall abate."
Reading both laws together, the court found that Ms. Capone was not required to file a new, separate wrongful death action against Philip Morris. "[T]he express intent of the [Wrongful Death] Act is to shift the losses of survivors to the wrongdoer," the court observed, noting that the statute indicates elsewhere that it is to be "liberally construed" in order to meet this intent. Thus, the court ruled, it would be counter to the purpose of the Act to allow a defendant to evade liability for injuries caused simply because the plaintiff had the misfortune of passing away after filing suit.
In other words, the court concluded that a personal injury claim does not "self-destruct like the secret message on a rerun of 'Mission Impossible,'" upon the plaintiff's death, quoting the Second District Court of Appeals' 2003 decision in Niemi v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.
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