What is the impact of a litigant's death on a pending lawsuit?
The simplest answer is that all pending activity in the case is typically held in abeyance or "stayed," until an estate representative is substituted in the decedent's place and stead.*
In Griffin v. Manning, the Appellate Division, First Department, guides that upon a litigant's demise a court is divested of "jurisdiction" to entertain further relief (until such time as a substitution occurs) and that any judicial directive which issues after a party's death, in contravention of this process, may be "void."
In that particular dispute, a lead-poisoning personal injury case was started against a building's managing agent and Joshua and Elizabeth Krup, the building's owners. During the course of the trial, Ms. Krup passed away. Although counsel informed the court of the development, the case proceeded to verdict and the plaintiff was awarded $2,500,000.
On appeal, the AD1 reversed, noting as follows:
It is well settled that the death of a party divests a court of jurisdiction to conduct proceedings in an action until a proper substitution has been made pursuant to CPLR 1015(a) ... and any order rendered after the death of a party and before the substitution of a legal representative is void ... Although it has been held that the jurisdictional issue may be waived under "special circumstances," such as where there has been active participation in the litigation by the personal representative who would have been substituted for the decedent ... here there was no participation by Steven Krup prior to verdict. Moreover, Elizabeth Krup's counsel, upon hearing of her death, immediately, vigorously and repeatedly objected to participating in the continuing trial. Accordingly, the verdict, rendered after Elizabeth Krup's death, and prior to the substitution of Steve Krup, is a nullity.
Poof! (Did you catch that?)
There, in a blink of the eye, went $2.5M!
For a copy of the Appellate Division's decision in Griffin v. Manning, please click on the following link: http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2007/2007_00446.htm
*Civil Practice Law and Rules 1015(a) provides as follows:
Generally. If a party dies and the claim for or against him is not thereby extinguished the court shall order substitution of the proper parties.