Estate Law & Litigation: What happens to a lawsuit if the plaintiff or another party dies? 

what happens to lawsuit if plaintiff dies before settling

Disclaimer: This article discusses Estate Law.  It is intended for the purposes of providing information only and is to be used only for the purposes of guidance. This article is not intended to be relied upon as the giving of legal advice and does not purport to be exhaustive.

Civil litigation on its own can be complex. What happens if a party passes away while the litigation is ongoing?

This creates a whole host of issues to consider. In this article, we’ll talk about the estate trustee’s next steps. However, each situation is unique, and it is always wise to talk to an estate attorney about your pending lawsuit. 

What happens in a civil lawsuit if the defendant dies?

In Ontario, if a party involved in legal proceedings passes away, those proceedings related to the deceased’s interests or liabilities in the lawsuit are promptly halted, known as a “stay.” This means that the court will not permit the action to proceed unless specific conditions are met. Rule 11 of the Rules of Civil Procedure outlines the procedure for parties to resume the action following the death of a party. 

What happens when a plaintiff dies? 

This can happen fairly often in a personal injury lawsuit, as it can take years to settle or go to trial. The same rules would apply as noted above. 

However, in some instances, a claim may not continue after the plaintiff’s death. For example, Ontario courts have barred an estate from continuing a Charter claim that the deceased had commenced against the federal Attorney General. 

Who can obtain an order for continuance?

According to Rule 11.02 of the Rules, if a person’s interests or responsibilities in a case transfer while the case is ongoing, anyone interested can ask the court to continue the case by filing the appropriate documents.

However, although the rule mentions “any interested person,” court decisions suggest it’s usually the executor of the deceased’s estate who must do this for a deceased plaintiff. This makes sense because whatever the deceased’s role was in the lawsuit becomes part of their estate.

What if someone dies without a will? The courts may be cautious about giving someone authority over litigation without the proper estate administration in place (such as a court appointment for an estate trustee). 

What if the estate has not obtained an order for continuance?

Suppose a plaintiff has passed away and his or her estate has not obtained an order for continuance.

If the estate does not obtain an order for continuance, defendants have two options:

Option A: Defendants can take the initiative to obtain the order themselves under Rule 11.02(1). This involves naming the trustee in substitution for the deceased litigant. 

Option B: Defendants could alternatively move under Rule 11.03. This rule allows for a motion to dismiss the action for delay if no order to continue is obtained within a reasonable time after the transfer or transmission of the plaintiff’s interest.

To make a motion under Rule 11.03 (Option B above), you must prove that the delay was unreasonable. 

Ontario courts consider various factors in determining reasonableness, but there are no specific guidelines on the length of delay. Factors that the courts would consider include the time required to obtain a certificate of appointment for the estate trustee, especially in cases of intestacy, and any legitimate reasons for the delay.

In many cases, it may be preferable for the defendant to simply obtain the order for continuance for themselves. 

Beeksma Law: Your partners for comprehensive estate advice 

Navigating estate law and litigation demands a nuanced understanding of legal procedures and implications, especially in cases involving the death of a party. At Beeksma Law, we recognize the complexities inherent in these matters and are committed to providing comprehensive estate advice and representation.

Whether you’re facing challenges related to the death of a party in ongoing litigation or seeking proactive legal guidance for estate planning, our experienced team is here to support you every step of the way. Trust Beeksma Law to be your partners in safeguarding your interests and securing your legacy.

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