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Understanding “Wrongful” Death Claims in Washington

Posted Wednesday, July 16, 2014 by Ada K. Wong

alt textThe untimely loss of a loved one is always difficult for surviving family members to cope with. In Washington, we have wrongful death claims. Although no amount of money can bring them back, the party responsible for the death should be held accountable and it may help prevent someone else from suffering the same loss in the future and to prevent future dangerous actions.

Under Washington tort law, if the death was caused by “wrongful” conduct, this may form the bases for a civil claim for damages. “Wrongful death” is where a person dies due to the unlawful conduct of another person or entity. The underlying conduct can be intentional or merely negligent. Conduct is considered negligent, generally, when a person or entity fails to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances. Intentional conduct indicates that a person or entity acted volitionally with the knowledge that the conduct might cause harm, although they may not have intended the specific harm (death) that resulted. In such events, Washington law allows certain specific surviving relatives of the deceased to recover specified types of damages against the responsible party, whether that is an individual, a corporation or governmental entity.

Like many other states, in Washington, a wrongful death claim is governed by a specific statute (RCW 4.20, et seq.). A federal claim for wrongful death may also be brought under 42 United States Code section 1983.

To bring a wrongful death case, there must be a “Personal Representative” that is appointed by the court on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. A petition to appoint one must be filed with the court and the judge must enter an order stating such.

In Washington, there are two “tiers” - the surviving spouse and children (and step-children) are the first tier of authorized beneficiaries. The second tier is the parents or siblings of the deceased, but only if the surviving relative was dependent on the deceased for financial support. The only exception to this is if the deceased was a minor.

However, if the decedent was an adult, unmarried, and left no children, only a parent or sibling may maintain a wrongful death action so long as the surviving relative was financially dependent on the deceased at the time of death. Washington courts have held that emotional dependence is not enough to survive a claim for wrongful death.

Damages include pecuniary loss and other compensable injuries resulting from the loss of society, comfort, attention, services, and support of decedent. A plaintiff may also ask for funeral and burial expenses. Time limits do apply when seeking to file a wrongful death suit so one should act quickly, despite this disheartening time.
For more information, feel free to contact Ada K. Wong at (206) 805-1493 or AWong@PivotalLawGroup.com. Our firm handles wrongful death claims and is available to investigate if someone died because of a motor vehicle collision, under suspicious circumstances, because of a workplace injury, from police misconduct, etc.

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