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SEYMOUR v. ROSSMAN (11/30/72)

decided: November 30, 1972.


Appeal from order of Superior Court, Oct. T., 1971, No. 392, affirming order of Court of Common Pleas, Trial Division, of Philadelphia, March T., 1966, No. 5002, in re H. Shaw Seymour, administratrix of the estate of Robert T. Seymour, deceased v. Samuel R. Rossman and Leonard Abrams v. N. Blair LeRoy, M.D.


Stephen M. Feldman, with him Feldman & Feldman, for appellant.

Thomas B. Rutter, with him Litvin and Rutter, and Hurwitz, Klein, Benjamin & Angino, for appellees.

Jones, C. J., Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Chief Justice Jones. Concurring Opinion by Mr. Justice Nix. Mr. Justice Manderino joins in this concurring opinion. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Mr. Justice Pomeroy joins in this dissenting opinion. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Pomeroy.

Author: Jones

[ 449 Pa. Page 517]

This matter arose from a trespass action based upon medical and dental malpractice proximately causing the death of Robert T. Seymour on February 2, 1966. Decedent was survived by his wife, H. Shaw Seymour, and a minor daughter of a prior marriage, Marcijean Seymour. Marcijean Seymour was sixteen and one-half years old on the date of the death of Robert T. Seymour. H. Shaw Seymour was decedent's wife of three years.*fn1

After her appointment as administratrix, the surviving spouse brought suit under the Wrongful Death Act of 1855.*fn2 The complaint set forth the fact that the only beneficiaries entitled to recover were decedent's widow and Marcijean Seymour, his daughter by a prior marriage.*fn3 Following discovery proceedings and multiple pretrial conferences, the action was called for trial at which time the parties agreed to a settlement in the amount of $142,500.

Administratrix petitioned the Common Pleas Court seeking approval of the settlement and the proposed distribution of the proceeds. The petition alleged that, prior to the death of Robert T. Seymour, his daughter

[ 449 Pa. Page 518]

    was entitled to benefit from her father's support to the extent of only $75.00 per month until June 1, 1967, and $125.00 per month from that date until July 31, 1970, pursuant to a court order evolving from the termination of decedent's first marriage. The petition accordingly proposed an allocation of $87,703.75 to the widow and $4,184 to the daughter. These amounts were deemed by petitioner to represent the beneficiaries' respective interests in the net value of the settlement of the wrongful death action where the amounts were fixed according to the actual pecuniary losses of each surviving relative occasioned by the death of Robert T. Seymour.

The Honorable Ethan Allen Doty issued an order approving the distribution as proposed. Thereafter, the minor daughter filed a petition, by her mother and guardian, to vacate the order of distribution and to reallocate the net proceeds in equal shares between H. Shaw Seymour and Marcijean Seymour. Judge Doty then ordered a distribution in equal shares of $45,943 to each.

The Superior Court affirmed per curiam. This Court granted a petition for leave to appeal from the judgment of the Superior Court.

The appeal presents the questions whether the Wrongful Death Act of 1855*fn4 and the Intestate Act of 1947*fn5 compel the equal distribution of the net proceeds of the settlement of a wrongful death action under the facts here presented and, if so, whether the application of the acts violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 11, and Article III, Section 18, of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

[ 449 Pa. Page 519]

The Wrongful Death Act, in pertinent part, provides: "The persons entitled to recover damages for any injuries causing death shall be the husband, widow, children or parents of the deceased, and no other relatives . . . the sum recovered shall go to them in the proportion they would take his or her personal estate in case of intestacy. . . ." (Emphasis added) Act of April 26, 1855, P. L. 309, § 1, as amended, 12 P.S. § 1602.

The intestate distribution referred to in the Wrongful Death Act, in the case where, as here, decedent is survived by his spouse and one child, is mandated by the Intestate Act of 1947: "The surviving spouse shall be entitled to the following share or shares: . . . . (2) One Child. One-half if the decedent is survived by one child only, or by no child, but by the issue of one deceased child. . . ." Act of April 24, 1947, P. L. 80, § 2, as amended, 20 P.S. § 1.2.

Notwithstanding the clear legislative mandate dictating the method of distribution of the proceeds of a wrongful death action, appellant argues that the results obtained by the Act's application are obtuse. It is argued that, since the Wrongful Death Act was enacted to compensate the dependent relatives of the deceased for the pecuniary losses suffered by them as a result of the death, the distribution of the recovery in equal shares among the possible beneficiaries will work injustice where the losses sustained are disproportionate. There is logical consistency to the argument that, since the wrongful death action is not intended to compensate the decedent, the proceeds of the action should not pass to the enumerated beneficiaries as though the recovery is part of the decedent's intestate personalty, but ...

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