When a person dies as a result of another party's accidental or intentional act, the deceased person's survivors could be entitled to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In this article, we'll examine the laws that apply to wrongful death claims in Washington, including how state law defines a "wrongful death," who may file a wrongful death lawsuit, the time limits for filing the claim, and the damages available if a wrongful death case succeeds.
A case qualifies under Washington's "wrongful death" statutes when "the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another." (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.20.010 (2021).) In other words, a wrongful death occurs when one person dies as a result of the legal fault of another person or entity, including by:
It can be helpful to think of a wrongful death claim as a personal injury case in which the injured person can no longer pursue his or her own case. Although the deceased person cannot bring his or her own personal injury claim, another party may step in and bring the wrongful death case to court on the deceased person's behalf.
Some states' laws allow the deceased person's surviving family members to file a wrongful death lawsuit. Washington law, however, requires the personal representative (sometimes called the "executor") of the deceased person's estate to bring most wrongful death claims. If the deceased person has executed a will, he or she will most likely have named the personal representative there. If there is no will or the named personal representative cannot serve, the court can appoint someone to act. Note that while the personal representative must file the wrongful death lawsuit, any damages awarded are for the benefit of the deceased's survivors. (More on damages, below.)
As noted above, the personal representative must file the wrongful death lawsuit in most cases. However, Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.010 allows a parent or legal guardian to file a claim for the death of a child only if the child has no surviving spouse, domestic partner, or children, under the following circumstances.
If the child was a minor (younger than 18 years of age). A parent or legal guardian may file a wrongful death lawsuit—or join a wrongful death action—if he or she has regularly contributed to the child's support.
If the child was an adult (18 years of age or older). A parent or legal guardian may file a wrongful death lawsuit—or join a wrongful death action—if he or she has had "significant involvement" in the life of the adult child. Under Washington law, "significant involvement" includes giving or receiving emotional, psychological, or financial support, at or reasonably near the time of death, or at or reasonably near the time of the incident causing death.
Get more details about who has the legal right to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
A wrongful death claim in Washington must be filed within three years of the date of the person's death, a time limit set by a law called a "statute of limitations." If the case is not filed within three years, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.080(2) (2021).)
Note: Other time limits could apply if the death was the result of medical malpractice.
"Damages" are the plaintiff's claimed losses in a personal injury case. In a successful wrongful death lawsuit, the court will award damages to the deceased person's survivors to compensate for a range of losses. Damages commonly awarded in a Washington wrongful death case include compensation for:
In Washington, damages are for the benefit of the deceased's surviving spouse or domestic partner and children (including stepchildren). If there is no spouse or domestic partner or children, damages are for the benefit of the deceased's parents or siblings. (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.20.20 (2021).)
Under Wash. Rev. Code § 4.24.010 (discussed above), parents or guardians of a deceased child may recover damages for:
Learn more about the damages that might be available in a wrongful death case.
Wrongful death claims can be complicated—and the law can change at any time. If you're thinking of filing a wrongful death lawsuit in Washington, it's a good idea to consult a personal injury attorney. An experienced lawyer can explain how the law applies to the circumstances of your case.