Washington state law dictates that surviving loved ones can pursue a wrongful death lawsuit in the event that a death is caused by negligence or misconduct of another person or entity. The wrongful death lawyers at Davis Law Group in Seattle have handled some of the most complex wrongful death cases in Washington state, and we can help you better understand your legal rights during this difficult time.
What Are Washington State's Wrongful Death Laws?
The Revised Code Of Washington (RCW 4.20.010) states, "When the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect or default of another, his personal representative may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death."
Simply put, the loss of a life due to negligence of another person, business, or government agency, the surviving family members and/or loved ones may be eligible to pursue a wrongful death claim on behalf of the decedent.
Who Can File A Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
It is important to note that there are other factors that affect a person's ability to bring a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of a decedent. The basis for a wrongful death claim isn't just that the deceased was killed as a result of negligence. There must also be a surviving family member who qualifies to be appointed as personal representative - also called the beneficiary - for the deceased.
According to RCW 4.20.020, "Every such action shall be for the benefit of the wife, husband, state registered domestic partner, child or children, including stepchildren, of the person whose death shall have been so caused. If there is no wife, husband, state registered domestic partner, or such child or children, such action may be maintained for the benefit of the parents, sisters, or brothers, who may be dependent upon the deceased person for support, and who reside within the United States at the time of his death. In every such action, the jury may give damages as, under all circumstances of the case, may to them seem just."
There are multiple tiers of beneficiaries who may potentially bring a wrongful death lawsuit. The first tier of beneficiaries includes the surviving spouse and/or children of the decedent. If there are no eligible first-tier beneficiaries, then second-tier beneficiaries - typically parents and/or siblings - may be able to bring a lawsuit.
How Long Do I Have To File A Wrongful Death Claim?
The Statute of Limitations (SOL) for a wrongful death lawsuit in Washington is typically three years from the date of the incident, but that can depend upon a number of factors. The bottom line is that surviving family members have a limited amount of time before the case is barred forever, so it's best to contact an attorney immediately to ensure the case is not jeopardized.
There are also a number of common mistakes people make that can severely damage your case, so it's usually best to consult with an attorney before communicating with the insurance companies. For more information about the common mistakes made by surviving family members of wrongful death victims, order your free copy of Mr. Davis's book on wrongful death law in Washington state.
Wrongful death accidents occur in a number of ways. Some of the types of cases our attorneys have handled involving the wrongful death of a person include, but are not limited to motor vehicle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, poisoning, being struck by an object, medical malpractice, on-the-job accidents, dog bites & animal attacks, drowning incidents, falls, and fires.
According to the CDC, there are approximately 121,000 deaths each year that are the result of unintentional fatal accident. The term “accident” in this sense is a bit of a misnomer, as many times a fatal accident may be attributed to negligence on behalf of a person, business, or government entity. When a wrongful death is caused by negligence, the victim’s surviving loved ones may have grounds for a wrongful death lawsuit.
Motor vehicle accidents are perhaps the most common causation in wrongful death cases. The sudden loss of a loved one in an automobile accident caused by a negligent driver can be devastating. Wrongful death lawsuits often arise out of pedestrian accidents, semi truck accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle crashes, as well as severe dog bites. When a family member’s life is suddenly cut short the grief and feelings of loss can be overwhelming.
What Damages Are Recoverable For Wrongful Death?
When a person is killed as a result of negligent behavior, the victim’s surviving family members have a legal right to recover the damages they have directly suffered. Survivors can make a claim for damages against the negligent person, company, or other entity that caused their loved one’s death. Real-life examples of the damages that might be included in a wrongful death lawsuit may include:
- Medical bills and expenses. In many wrongful death claims, hospitals will expect their bills to be paid even if the patient dies. Grieving families are often left with costly bills for medical treatment and other expenses. An experienced wrongful death lawyer may even be able to negotiate with medical providers and reduce these costs.
- Lost wages and loss of future earnings. If the surviving loved ones were financially dependent on the deceased victim, the claimants may be able to recover damages for the financial support that they have lost. The amount of damages are usually based on the victim’s current, past, and future earnings, as well as education and future job prospects.
- Pain and suffering. Not all accident victims pass away immediately. If a victim experienced significant pain and suffering before their death, a qualified wrongful death lawyer may factor the victim’s pain and suffering into the claim for damages.
- Loss of consortium. Not all damages in a wrongful death lawsuit are economic. Family members grieving the untimely death of a loved one can also request compensation for their own suffering, including the loss of their loved one’s companionship.
- Funeral expenses. Even a simple burial can cost family members tens of thousands of dollars. These damages can also be recovered in many wrongful death cases.
Every single wrongful death case is unique; it’s not possible at the start of a case to predict with complete accuracy what the final settlement or verdict will be. Some of the factors that affect the overall value of a wrongful death case include:
- The negligent party’s insurance policy. In cases where a fatal accident was caused by a private individual with a car insurance policy or homeowner’s policy, it is highly unlikely that even the best lawyer will be able to recover more than the available policy limits. However, cases involving a negligent company or department of the government may have much higher limits, or no limits at all, on what may be claimed.
- The identity of the person who died. As crass as it may sound, insurance companies try to calculates the monetary value of a person’s life. This is often based on the income they earned or would have earned. In cases that go to trial, the jury’s own perception of the victim may also affect how much money they award.
- The identity of the claimant. In Washington state, only certain family members are allowed to file a claim for compensation after a wrongful death. State law also places restrictions on when people who are not citizens of the United States are allowed to file a claim in wrongful death cases. For example, a boyfriend or girlfriend of a victim is usually not allowed to file a wrongful death claim.
- The circumstances of the death. If the victim experienced a great deal of pain and suffering before their passing, their family may have an additional claim for damages.
- Willingness to go to trial. Many grieving families would prefer not to add the additional stress of preparing for trial to their lives. However, attorneys who are at least willing to take a case to trial typically receive higher damages and insurance companies will often offer a more generous settlement to avoid a costly trial.
- The quality of the law firm you choose. While all lawyers who have passed the bar may technically be allowed to handle a wrongful death case, very few will have the necessary experience to get the best possible results for their clients. Many firms that take wrongful death cases practice many different areas of law, or they take on a high volume of cases and try to close them as quickly as possible. More modest firms that only take personal injury and wrongful death cases tend to devote more time to each case they take.
Common Legal Questions About Wrongful Death
When a spouse, parent, sibling or other loving relative of a wrongful death victim first contacts our office, they often have questions about who is responsible for the accident happened and are worried about how they will pay bills and expenses. Some other common questions include:
- How much is a wrongful death claim worth?
- Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?
- Why file a wrongful death claim?
- Why wasn’t something done to prevent our loved one’s death?
- How can we survive emotionally and financially after this tragedy?
- How will we pay the medical bills and funeral costs?
- How will we manage living expenses without our loved one's financial support?
- Is there anything we can do to protect the reputation of our departed loved one?
- How can we make sure that this kind of accident never happens again?
Wrongful Death Legal Consultation
The wrongful death lawyers at Davis Law Group are ready review your wrongful death case free of charge. If we believe we can help improve the chances of a successful outcome for your case, we will meet with you for a free legal consultation to discuss your case in more detail and explain why hiring an attorney is in your best interests.
Call our office in Seattle at (206) 727-4000 or use the confidential contact form to request a free consultation with our wrongful death attorneys.