At Boohoff Law, our attorneys regularly fight for the rights of injured victims to recover the compensation they deserve. Some representation involves injured victims who survived the accident. We also represent family members whose loved ones tragically died as a result of injuries caused by another’s careless or reckless actions.
In this blog post, we discuss the latter type of case, which is referred to in the law as a wrongful death lawsuit. We consider the significant changes to Washington’s wrongful death laws that took effect in mid-2019.
Under Washington Law, “wrongful death” is expressly defined. A wrongful death refers to “the death of a person … caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person.” A death that occurs during an accident, or a later death resulting from injuries sustained in an accident may qualify as a wrongful death. A wrongful death may result from the commission of a crime, but criminal behavior is not required. Simply put, if a loved one dies as a result of another’s careless, reckless, or intentional actions, their death may be considered wrongful.
A wrongful death lawsuit involves a family member’s legal claim for compensation for losses stemming from a wrongful death. Technically, the lawsuit has two components. One part consists of a “survival” claim asserting the personal injury claim that the deceased person could have brought if they had not died. The other part is the “wrongful death” claim, which seeks damages suffered by family members as a result of the death. For simplicity, when we refer to a “wrongful death lawsuit” we mean both types of actions combined in a single case.
Washington law permits recovery of “the economic and noneconomic damages” resulting from a wrongful death. Let’s take a closer look at what that means.
The newly-revised wrongful death statute clarifies that a wrongful death claimant may seek damages sustained by both the deceased victim and the “beneficiaries” described above. It may seem confusing at first blush. However, it means that the victim’s surviving loved ones can recover compensation for harm the victim suffered before dying. In addition, they may also recover compensation for the losses they incur as a result of their loved one’s death.
As the statute states, there are two general “types” of damages claimants may recover in a wrongful death lawsuit. The first, economic damages (also sometimes called “special damages”), are the out-of-pocket costs associated with the victim’s injuries and death. For example, a person may die from injuries sustained in a car accident after spending two weeks in intensive care. The cost of the victim’s medical care constitutes economic damages.
In addition, economic damages include the victim’s pay for the two weeks they missed work while fighting for their life in the hospital. Economic damages will also include the costs borne by the victim’s loved ones for funeral expenses. Any other quantifiable costs incurred as a result of the victim’s death may be included as economic damages.
Non-economic (also called “general”) damages constitute financial compensation for harms that are not associated with an out-of-pocket expense. “Pain and suffering” is the most well-known type of non-economic damage. Remember a wrongful death claimant can seek compensation for both the victim’s pain and suffering before death and their loved one’s pain and suffering resulting from the death. Other common non-economic damages that apply to both the victim and surviving loved ones include “loss of consortium” and “loss of companionship.”
In other parts of the country, non-economic damages have a reputation of being virtually limitless. However, that is not the case in Washington State. Washington law caps non-economic damages at a maximum of 43 percent of the average annual wage in the state multiplied by the average life expectancy of the victim (which can be no less than 15 years). Washington State jurors are not informed of the limitation on damages before their deliberation of cases. The cap only comes into play only if the jury decides to award an amount of non-economic damages that exceed the cap.
Washington State, unlike many other jurisdictions in the United States, does not award punitive (or exemplary) damages in most cases.
Some of the most common scenarios that may cause a wrongful death include:
Families in mourning rarely give much thought to hiring a lawyer, at least not initially. When they do consider hiring someone to pursue justice and accountability for their loved one, they likely have lots of questions. They may worry about the costs and emotional stress associated with litigation. Here is a brief description of the legal processes involved in a wrongful death case.
To begin, the personal representative of the deceased victim—who is often a family member—typically hires an attorney. The representative must choose an attorney with experience navigating the Washington State wrongful death lawsuit process. In addition, you need an attorney who has experience investigating and litigating cases involving the type of accident involved. Cost should not be a concern. The best wrongful death attorneys represent their clients on a “contingency fee” basis. Contingency fees typically involve the lawyer providing most of the upfront costs of the lawsuit. The attorney agrees to only collect some fees if they secure financial compensation for their clients.
The attorney and representative, and often other family members as well, have an initial meeting. At Boohoff Law, we offer a free consultation for potential clients. During an initial consultation, the attorney will gather information about your case and discuss the potential for filing a wrongful death action. Assuming the lawyer and family agree to work together, the lawyer will likely begin to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death.
When appropriate, investigation may include hiring private investigators, accident reconstruction experts, and medical advisors to help the attorneys answer three questions:
The first question aims to identify all parties who may have legal liability in a wrongful death action. The second question targets how to prove a direct link between someone’s wrongful actions and the death of the victim. The third seeks to establish a precise amount of money the family should demand.
Let us pause here to say that we understand that families sometimes feel uncomfortable with the third question. Money is no replacement for a life, and it cannot heal the pain a grieving family feels. What money can do, however, is help a family sustain itself financially in the wake of a tragic death. Otherwise, the decedent’s family may struggle to make ends meet. Our goal at Boohoff Law is always to seek the maximum compensation for our clients in wrongful death cases. We understand that the untimely loss of life leaves a family with significant needs that money can help to meet.
After evaluating a case, experienced wrongful death lawyers begin the process of pursuing parties with legal liability. When appropriate, lawyers may initiate negotiations with responsible parties to attempt to settle your claim. Sometimes negotiations immediately lead to “settlement” discussions.
Sometimes the parties resist, and the lawyer may file a formal wrongful death lawsuit in a Washington court, if necessary. In either event, the lawyer’s job is to represent the grieving family’s interests by obtaining the maximum compensation possible. In some cases, that may mean taking the case to trial.
If your family has suffered an untimely loss because of a preventable accident, contact an experienced wrongful death attorney today.
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