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.
Wrongful Death Lawsuits Under Washington Law
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.
Who Files Wrongful Death Lawsuits?
Under Washington law, a victim’s “personal representative may maintain an action against the person causing the death” for the benefit of certain “beneficiaries.” In other words, the “personal representative” (usually, the executor of the deceased person’s estate) can file a wrongful death lawsuit. If the lawsuit results in a financial settlement or money judgment, that money is distributed to the “beneficiaries.” The personal representative can also file certain other types of lawsuits that benefit the deceased person’s estate. However, this blog focuses on the wrongful death lawsuit.
Who are the “beneficiaries” of a wrongful death lawsuit? Under Washington law, beneficiaries include “the spouse, state registered domestic partner, child or children, including stepchildren,” of the accident victim. If no such people exist, the personal representative can file a lawsuit on behalf of the deceased’s parents or siblings.
(Be aware that, previously, special rules in Washington limited how parents of an adult child could seek damages for that child’s wrongful death. A new law that took effect in mid-2019 eliminated those limitations, making it easier for grieving parents to file a claim. Speak with an experienced Washington State wrongful death attorney to learn more about the expanded legal rights of parents of adult children.)
To summarize, a wrongful death lawsuit is a legal claim that seeks damages resulting from the death of a victim caused by another’s wrongful acts. Wrongful death claims are brought by the victim’s personal representative, for the benefit of certain of the victim’s family members.
Damages in Washington Wrongful Death Lawsuits
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.
But Not Punitive Damages
Washington State, unlike many other jurisdictions in the United States, does not award punitive (or exemplary) damages in most cases.
Common Wrongful Death Causes
Some of the most common scenarios that may cause a wrongful death include:
- Motor vehicle accidents. Crashes involving cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles, represent a leading cause of accidental death. Careless and reckless driving behaviors, such as drunk, drugged, or fatigued driving, contribute to a significant proportion of motor vehicle accident fatalities. When another driver’s recklessness takes the life of an innocent victim, the surviving family members deserve justice.
- Accidental falls. State data also shows that accidental falls are a major cause of unintentional injury fatalities across the state every year. In particular, falls threaten the lives of older individuals because their injuries can lead to a cascade of catastrophic health complications. Many family members do not realize that a severe bone break can significantly contribute to an elderly loved one’s death. Complications from accidental falls may entitle the victim’s family to seek compensation in a wrongful death suit.
- Medical malpractice. We trust doctors to “do no harm” and, most of the time, they live up to our expectations. Unfortunately, medical professionals also make mistakes that may have deadly consequences for their patients. A medical professional must be held accountable for an error that leads to an inevitable health crisis causing the death of a family member.
- Construction accidents. Workers on construction sites know about the dangers they face every day. They rely on their bosses and other contractors on site to adhere to safety regulations. They must ensure smooth operations on-site to avoid the occurrence of fatal accidents. Construction workers should never die on the job, but when they do, their families must hold the many potentially-liable parties accountable. A wrongful death lawsuit may deter similar reckless behavior in the future, preventing further injury and death.
- Pedestrian and bicycle accidents. The decision to walk or pedal on city streets, suburban cul-de-sacs, and rural roads, should never result in a fatality. Unfortunately, motorists often fail to take care around vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists. When motor vehicles collide with unprotected pedestrians and cyclists, they cause avoidable and senseless tragedies.
What Happens in Wrongful Death Cases
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.
Hiring an Attorney
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.
Meeting With the Attorney
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:
- Who caused the accident that injured the victim?
- How and why did the victim die?
- What are the extent of damages the victim and the family members suffered as a result?
The Attorney’s Investigation
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.
Pursuing Justice, Accountability, and Compensation
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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Seattle, WA 98121