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Explaining the New Wrongful Death Law

Posted Monday, July 8, 2019 by Tyler Goldberg-Hoss

After years of attempting to fix Washington State’s racist and unfair wrongful death law, the association of attorneys who represent victims, along with other interested parties, successfully passed changes which recently became law.

Prior to these changes, the law was unfair in a couple of egregious ways.

First, to have standing to bring a lawsuit based on a person or corporation wrongfully causing the death of a person, the family of the decedent – assuming they are the right family members – had to be United States citizens to bring claims. This injustice was pointed out in the recent litigation involving the catastrophic Ride the Ducks crash on the Aurora bridge. The lives of those lost in that crash were valued very differently for no reason other than the nationality of the family.

Second, once a person turned 18, if she died wrongfully and neither had kids nor was married, unless she could be projected to make significant income over her life, it was almost never economically feasible to bring such claims. This was because her parents or siblings had no standing to bring claims due to the loss of the relationship. This antiquated part of the law was based on the living situation a century ago, when people were “adults” much earlier than they are now.

The reality of today is that few 18 year olds – let along 24 and 25 year olds – have kids or are married. Prior to the change in the law, a person or corporation could negligently cause their death and suffer no recourse. Without accountability in these situations, there is little incentive for wrongdoers to change behavior and act any safer in the future.

The law Governor Inslee recently signed does away with the requirement that the family of the decedent be a U.S. resident. Further, it allows a jury to value the loss of the relationship a parent may have for their adult children, value that doesn’t magically disappear once the child turns 18. If the decedent leaves behind no spouse, children, or parents, a sibling can also bring a claim.

Critics point to the increased liability insurers and other likely defendants will face in the future. In our line of work, this includes insurers for medical providers, including independent physicians as well as large hospital institutions. This also includes the State of Washington, through places like the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview.

Those entities can reduce this risk of increased claims by adopting practices that prevent negligence from occurring, thereby reducing the incidence of negligence causing people in Washington State to die.

And do not forget: this law doesn’t change anything other than the ability for a jury to value the claims that had previously not been allow for racist and unfair reasons.

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