When the unthinkable happens and you lose a close family member, it takes time to make the necessary adjustments. You and your family undergo significant life changes. When you have young children, the shift in responsibilities is often overwhelming. If your loved one was the primary breadwinner in your family, you might not want to think about the financial impacts of their death, but it’s unavoidable.
If your loved one died because of someone else’s negligence, it’s important to understand your legal options. If you’re entitled to recover wrongful death damages, you should understand how wrongful death settlements are paid.
When someone caused your loved one’s death, a wrongful death settlement can provide you with benefits that will allow you and your family to maintain your household’s finances. Regardless of how your loved one’s death occurred, you shouldn’t try to move forward without learning the answers to your personal, financial, and legal questions. These might include:
- What is a wrongful death claim?
- How does a wrongful death occur?
- What kind of damages can you recover in a wrongful death lawsuit?
- Who is responsible for paying wrongful death damages?
- Who has the right to file a claim for damages?
- How much time do you have to make a wrongful death claim?
- Do you have to file a lawsuit to recover damages?
What Is a Wrongful Death Claim?
If your family member died because of someone else’s negligent act, you may have the legal right to make a wrongful death claim. The Revised Code of Washington, RCW 4.20.010, Wrongful death–Right of action, gives certain dependents, registered domestic partners, and family members legal rights to recover damages after their loved one’s death. The statutes allow families to recover benefits to pay for their emotional losses and replace their loved one’s financial contributions to their household.
As you consider your options, you should know that the state legislature recently changed Washington’s Wrongful Death laws. Effective July 28, 2019, new provisions in the law enhance a family’s legal damage recovery rights. The changes are retroactive, so they apply to any pending court cases. They also apply to cases where the event occurred a year or two ago but the statute of limitations has not yet run. Discuss your case with a wrongful death attorney to learn if these changes affect your legal rights.
Who Has the Right to Receive a Payment for Wrongful Death Damages?
RCW 4.20.020, Wrongful death—Beneficiaries of action identifies the people who are the decedent’s legal beneficiaries. These are the decedent’s:
- Registered Domestic Partner;
- Children or stepchildren; and/or
- Parents or siblings, but only if there is no spouse or registered domestic partner and there are no children.
What Kind of Damages Can You Recover?
When a person dies, their personal representative may file a suit for the economic and non-economic damages the decedent would have recovered in a personal injury lawsuit. These include economic and non-economic damages.
Economic damages include medical bills and other out-of-pocket expenses incurred by and on behalf of the decedent while they were still living. These might include:
- Income loss;
- Medical expenses;
- Mobility devices and prosthesis;
- Medical transportation;
- Domestic replacement services, such as cleaning or cooking services;
- Plastic surgery; and
- Funeral expenses.
A court determines non-economic damages based on psychological, emotional, and lifestyle losses. When a person dies, their personal representative may file a suit for non-economic damages the decedent would have recovered in a personal injury claim. These might include:
- Pain and suffering;
- Emotional distress;
- Loss of marital consortium;
- Loss of domestic partner consortium;
- Loss of bodily functions;
- Scars and disfigurement; and
- Permanent limitations and disabilities.
Beneficiaries’ Economic and Non-Economic Damages
A deceased person’s beneficiaries may also file a lawsuit to recover their own past and future economic and non-economic damages. Each beneficiary has a right to damages. Courts base a beneficiary’s damages on their relationship with the deceased. Damages may compensate the beneficiary for losses such as:
- Financial support, money, goods, and services;
- Marital consortium;
- Domestic partner consortium;
- Emotional support;
- Guidance; and
How Does a Wrongful Death Occur?
Accidental death can occur under ordinary or extraordinary circumstances. Each day people die because of dog bites, defective products, and slip-and-falls. Fatal auto accidents and on-the-job injuries occur suddenly and accidentally. The circumstances under which your loved died determine your legal right to file a claim for wrongful death damages. The following are some of the most common situations in which beneficiaries may seek damages in a wrongful death claim:
- Workplace accidents: The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries reported that 76 work-related deaths occurred in the state in 2018. Of the workers who died, 92 percent were men. The fatally injured workers ranged in age from 18 to 83 years old. They died because of vehicle accidents, falls, machine-related events, and being struck by an object.
- Auto accidents: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documented 565 vehicle accident deaths in Washington during 2017. When someone else’s negligence causes an accident that results in fatal injuries, the deceased person’s family has a right to file a claim for wrongful death damages.
- Drowning: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that drowning is the number five cause of unintentional deaths in the U.S. Twenty percent of drowning victims are children under age 14. Drowning occurs in public and private pools, in parks, and during water-related recreational activities such as boating.
- Falls: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites falls as a major cause of serious injury and death. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to serious and fatal injuries.
- Medical errors: A study by Johns Hopkins medical professionals determined that deaths caused by medical errors occur frequently but are underreported. The study estimates that medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Who Is Responsible for Paying Wrongful Death Damages?
Any person or entity that caused or contributed to your loved one’s death should pay your wrongful death damages. Often, more than one person or entity shares responsibility for a single event. This is important as Washington’s RCW 4.22.040, Right of Contribution statute dictates that one or more persons may share legal liability for a single act.
In pursuing a wrongful death claim, it’s important to identify and locate all of the responsible parties. This often requires an in-depth investigation that includes witness interviews, a site investigation, procurement of police and EMS reports, and many other factors. The list of responsible parties depends on the nature of the event.
- Auto accidents – The driver is usually at fault for an accident. If another person owns the vehicle, that person may share responsibility, as well. Responsible parties can also include anyone whose product or service contributed to or caused the accident. These may include a mechanic, a maintenance company, or a vehicle or component manufacturer.
- Truck accidents – Unless a trucker is an independent operator, they are usually driving a tractor that belongs to a trucking company, an employer, or another owner who may bear some responsibility in addition to the driver. The trailer a trucker hauls also often belongs to a separate company. The trailer owner or the contractor who loaded the trailer are often responsible if an unsecured load shifts and causes an accident. A manufacturer or maintenance contractor also sometimes share liability because of a defective product or service.
- Premises injury – A private property owner is responsible for accidents caused by adverse conditions on their property. A commercial property owner, maintenance staff, security service, repair contractors, and managers may share liability for conditions related to their areas of responsibility. If a property includes a pool, the owner and their staff are responsible for keeping it safe and secure.
- Product liability – If a negligently manufactured product causes a fatal injury, the manufacturer may be held liable. A product distributor is also liable if its owner’s or employee’s negligence contributed to an injury.
- Workplace accidents – If your loved one was fatally injured on the job, the employer is only responsible for workers’ compensation benefits through the Washington Department of Labor & Industries. As a beneficiary, you may qualify for a cash payment, a burial payment, and a monthly survivor’s benefit. If the employer intentionally caused the fatal injury, you have a right to pursue additional damages against the company. If a non-employer or non-co-worker fatally injure your family member during the course of employment, you may have a right to recover additional damages through a third-party action.
- Medical malpractice – A medical professional is legally responsible for a patient’s death if they failed to meet the accepted standard of care, and that failure caused a fatal injury.
How Do You File a Wrongful Death Claim?
In many cases, a responsible party in a wrongful death case will report the incident to their liability insurance carrier. The insurance company will investigate the claim but that doesn’t mean they will pay you a settlement. Once the claim department completes their liability investigation, they might contact you to explore settlement options so they can avoid litigation. They might also close their case file and wait until they hear from you or your legal representative.
When a wrongful death case involves complicated liability issues, insurance companies sometimes deny liability outright and refuse to offer a settlement. They might also choose to make a nominal payment based on defense costs. This scenario is also a possibility when a negligent commercial entity is self-insured or has a large retention limit. In these situations, the insured pays all or a large portion of the claim out of company funds. They may do whatever they can to avoid paying a substantial sum.
To avoid complications and time delays, you should consult with a wrongful death attorney to discuss your legal options.
How Much Time Do You Have to File a Wrongful Death Claim?
It’s difficult to make critical decisions during the early stages of grief after your loved one has died. Despite the discomfort it causes, it’s important to take action as soon as possible. In Washington, the statute of limitations for personal injury cases is three years. This means you have three years from the date of your loved one’s death to file a wrongful death lawsuit. If you do not settle a claim for damages or file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires, you are likely to lose your right to recover damages at all.
Must You File a Lawsuit to Recover Wrongful Death Damages?
A lawsuit is the most efficient way to present your evidence and demand the damages to which you are entitled. A lawsuit places a formal demand on the people or entities who fatally injured your loved one. It forces them and their insurance companies to produce evidence and witnesses you might not know about. It compels responsible parties to cooperate so you can learn about what really happened.
Insurance company representatives can be kind and cooperative. But even if you develop a rapport during their investigation, you should understand that your relationship won’t guarantee a fair settlement or any settlement at all. Insurance companies often contact survivors for information to evaluate their claims and establish reserves. When they’ve gathered all of the information they need, the claim department might deny your claim anyway.
Do You Still Have Questions?
Your loved one’s wrongful death case is serious. You need a serious wrongful death attorney from the very beginning. A wrongful death action requires timely attention and knowledgeable effort. When you contact an attorney early, they can spend time discussing your case, analyzing the evidence, and helping you understand complex legal and damages issues. If you decide to file a wrongful death lawsuit, your attorney will be fully prepared to take immediate action.
When you consult a wrongful death attorney, you don’t have to commit to filing a lawsuit or taking any other action. Meeting with an attorney allows you to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. It gives you a chance to receive guidance about your legal options.