Legal Rights of Family Members After a Fatal Accident
Many people are surprised to learn that Washington state law only allows certain family members to recover for a wrongful death of a loved one. In most fatal accident cases, recovery is limited to the surviving spouse and children. In some death cases the decedent’s surviving siblings and parents may also have separate claims if they are financially dependent on the decedent at the time of death.
A wrongful death action is one of the more complex types of cases in the field of personal injury law. These cases require a thorough knowledge and understanding of Washington’s complex wrongful death and survival laws and the numerous appellate decisions that interpret and define them.
These cases almost always involve complex legal issues or questions where the outcomes are heavily, if not completely, influenced by the individual facts of the case. In most cases, a wrongful death action requires urgent investigation and preparation to increase the chances of a favorable outcome. Furthermore, pursuing a wrongful death claim often requires significant financial resources and can take years to be resolved.
In most wrongful death cases, the estate and certain surviving family members will have a claim for damages. The estate is typically allowed to claim damages for the decedent’s lost earnings, medical expenses, funeral expenses, and conscious “pain and suffering” experienced by the decedent before death. Certain surviving family members may also have individual claims for damages as a result of the decedent’s death, including loss of consortium (i.e., destruction of the relationship) and emotional distress.
What Are Washington State's Wrongful Death Laws, Codes, Rules & Regulations?
Simply put, Washington state law permits the surviving family members of a person who has been killed by the wrongful act or negligence of another person to pursue a lawsuit against the responsible party or parties.
Specifically, 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."
Many states, including Washington, limit the ability to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit to certain family members of the deceased. The tiers of beneficiaries who are permitted to pursue a wrongful death claim can be difficult to understand without the assistance of an experienced wrongful death attorney.
Davis Law Group founder Chris Davis is the author of The Essential Guide To Wrongful Death Law in Washington State, a legal guide which helps family members to understand their legal rights and options after the tragic loss of a loved one. This comprehensive book sensitively addresses common issues and questions that may arise, such as: an overview of the wrongful death laws and litigation process, the need to start a probate action, dealing with medical and funeral bills, finding the right attorney, making sure that the surviving children and family members are fairly compensated, and the necessary legal steps involved in a wrongful death lawsuit.
The book is available for FREE as a public service to the citizens of Washington State. You can order a copy by visiting the Washington Accident Books & Reports website.
Justice for Families of Fatal Accident Victims
When the spouse, parent, sibling or other relative of a fatal accident victim contacts our office they often have questions about why the accident happened and are worried about how they will pay bills and expenses.
- 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 our family manage daily living expenses now that we have lost income that had been provided by deceased family member?
- 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?
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 do have a limited amount of time before the case will be 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. Contact our award-winning attorneys before speaking with any insurance company representatives to ensure you do not make any of these critical mistakes.
How Much is a Wrongful Death Case Worth?
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.
If you're visiting our website because you have lost a family member in a tragic accident, we hope this information begins to answer your some of your questions as you research your legal options and begin your journey to recovery.
Who Can File a Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
There are a number of 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.
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.
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."
Compensation for Surviving Family Members
The surviving family members of a person that died in an accident that was caused by the negligence of another does have legal rights. Survivors can generally make a claim for damages against a negligent person or company to recover financial compensation for medical treatment, medical bills, lost wages, other economic damages and non-economic damages.
In many cases, litigation may be necessary and victims may be forced to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible parties. Based upon the cause of the fatal accident and the specific circumstances of death of the deceased, the settlements and jury verdicts in these types of cases are often significant.
Damages Recoverable In Wrongful Death Lawsuit
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 recoverable 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.
Free Wrongful Death Legal Consultation
The wrongful death lawyers at Davis Law Group are ready to 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.