Washington, like most U.S. states, has its own specific laws governing wrongful death claims. In this article, we'll look at key portions of Washington wrongful death laws and how they might come into play in a real-world case.
What is Wrongful Death?
A case qualifies under the "wrongful death" statute in the state of Washington when "the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another."
One way to think of wrongful death is as a personal injury lawsuit that is no longer possible because the person who died can't serve as the plaintiff. So, although the deceased person cannot bring his or her own personal injury claim, certain other people may bring the wrongful death case to court on the deceased person's behalf. Wrongful death claims also allow family members to get compensation for their own losses stemming from a loved one’s death. (Get more information on Wrongful Death Claims.)
A wrongful death claim is a civil lawsuit. According to Revised Code of Washington Section 4.20.010, a wrongful death claim may be filed even if the case is also being tried in a criminal court.
A wrongful death claim and a criminal case differ in two key ways. First, a wrongful death claim is brought by the survivors of the deceased person directly, while a criminal case is filed by the state. Second, liability in a wrongful death claim is expressed solely in terms of money damages, while the penalties in a criminal case may include jail or prison time, probation, and other penalties.
Who May File a Washington Wrongful Death Claim?
Washington law allows the following parties to file a wrongful death claim:
- the personal representative of the deceased person's estate
- the spouse or state registered domestic partner of the deceased person, and
- the child, children, or stepchildren of the deceased person.
If the deceased person had no spouse, state registered domestic partner, children, or stepchildren, the deceased person's parents, sisters, or brothers may file a wrongful death claim.
What if the Wrongful Death Claim Involves the Death of a Child?
Revised Code of Washington Section 4.16.080 provides special rules for wrongful death claims that involve the death of a child under age 18. In these cases, each parent must "regularly contribute" to the support of the child in order to file or join a wrongful death claim. However, either parent may file a wrongful death claim even if they are divorced, separated, or were never married.
If one parent files a wrongful death claim, he or she must serve the other parent with a copy of the complaint within twenty days of filing the case in a Washington state court. This serves to notify the other parent that the case is going forward and that he or she may join it if desired.
What is the Time Limit for Filing a Washington Wrongful Death Claim?
A wrongful death claim in Washington must be filed within three years of the date of death. If the case is not filed within three years, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it, depriving the deceased person's survivors of the chance to seek a judgment of liability and compensation.
In some wrongful death cases, a separate criminal case may be pursued by the state. For instance, if a car accident causes a death, the state may pursue a criminal case for vehicular homicide. However, whether or not a criminal case occurs does not change the time limit, or "statute of limitations," on a wrongful death case filed in civil court.
What Damages are Available in a Washington Wrongful Death Case?
Damages in a Washington wrongful death case are paid to the estate of the deceased person or, if the deceased person was a minor, to the deceased minor's parents. Damages may include:
- the deceased person's last medical bills
- funeral and burial expenses
- lost wages and income that the person would have likely earned if death had not occurred
- damages for pain and suffering the deceased person experienced as a result of the final injury and death
- costs related to damaged property, and
- loss of care, companionship, and other intangible benefits by the deceased person's family members.
The specific damages available in a Washington wrongful death case depend on who is pursuing the claim. For instance, the spouse, domestic partner, children or stepchildren of a deceased person may be able to obtain damages for loss of care and companionship, but the personal representative may not be able to obtain these damages on behalf of the estate alone. (Learn more about damages in personal injury cases.)