2019 Saw Important Changes to Washington’s Wrongful Death Statutes

Important changes occurred in 2019 to Washington’s wrongful death laws.  You may know people that will benefit from changes to the law, and who may need to speak with a qualified personal injury attorney as soon as possible as changes to the law are retroactive.

SB 5163 was introduced early in 2019, and sought to expand the rights of certain plaintiffs to bring claims for damages arising from a wrongful death.  Although proposed changes to our wrongful death statutes had been brought before the legislature many times, they never really gained any traction until 2019.  The impetus for the changes to the law arose from the media attention surrounding the Ride the Ducks cases stemming from a September 24, 2015 collision that killed five people and injured more than 60.  As those cases went to trial, the public learned that the families of many of those killed were barred from bringing claims because they lived abroad when their family members died.  Outrage over this, and other limitations imposed on plaintiffs in wrongful death cases, finally lead the Washington legislature to act, and make changes to the law, with Governor Jay Inslee signing the changes into law on April 26, 2019, with the new laws becoming effective on July 28, 2019.

What changed?  This table helps to understand the law before and after April 26, 2019, specifically as it relates to two tiers of beneficiaries for each type of wrongful death claim:

Prior law

Changes with the new law

Primary beneficiaries were the decedent’s spouse, registered domestic partner, and children.

Primary beneficiaries are the decedent’s spouse, registered domestic partner, and children.

Secondary beneficiaries were parents and siblings, but they were only entitled to recover if there were NO primary beneficiaries, AND if (1) they depended on the decedent financially, and (2) resided within the United States at the time of death.

Secondary beneficiaries are parents and siblings.  They are only entitled to seek a recovery if there are not primary beneficiaries.  However, now there are NO requirements related to financial dependency or residency of a secondary beneficiary.

Parents of a minor child could be a beneficiary only if they regularly contributed to the child’s support.  Also, both or all parents had a single, indivisible claim.  Any verdict, judgment, award or settlement would be apportioned between them if the parents were unmarried.

Parents of a minor child will be a beneficiary if they can demonstrate “significant involvement” of an emotional, psychological, or financial nature at any time “reasonably near” to the time of the tort or time of death.  Importantly, EACH parent now has their own individual claim as a beneficiary.

These changes to the law greatly expands the potential claimants, and the claims that may be brought by plaintiffs in a wrongful death claim under Washington law.  Prior to the change in the law, we frequently saw claims of adult parents and siblings dismissed because they could not meet the monetary support threshold to bring a claim.  Now, such claims will be able to be pursued without difficulty.

It is important to note that they law is to be applied retroactively, meaning that it can be applied to any claim or lawsuit that exists at the time the law goes into effect.  Therefore, if you know someone that may have a valid claim to make, in light of the changes to the law, have them give one of the attorneys in our firm a call.

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