Legal law concept image representing wrongful death

Wrongful Death

Legal law concept image representing wrongful death

Defining Wrongful Death

“Wrongful death” cases are a subset of personal injury law—where the injured person dies of their injuries.  In the State of Washington, wrongful death is defined as “the death of a person caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person.” This encompasses various scenarios, including:

  • A commercial trucker causing a fatality in an auto accident
  • A property owner neglected to address an unsafe condition, leading to a fatal injury
  • A homeowner failing to secure an outdoor pool, resulting in a drowning
  • A parolee, under state supervision, causing someone's death
  • A physician acting negligently causing a patient's death
  • A pedestrian being struck by a speeding driver

It is important to note that the other party involved does not necessarily need to have committed a crime leading to death for a civil case to be pursued—negligence is often enough. Consulting with an experienced attorney is crucial for assessing legal options to recover damages from those deemed responsible.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions regarding lawsuits in Washington State:

What constitutes a wrongful death lawsuit?

In Washington state, a “personal representative” of the deceased individual is tasked with investigating and initiating a lawsuit. Typically, this representative is the closest living relative or the person named by the deceased person's Will. Even if there is no validly executed Will, a probate action can be opened in the county where the potential wrongful death case could be venued to appoint a “personal representative” to pursue a potential wrongful death case. Our lawyers can help you with this process.

In a Washington wrongful death lawsuit, the “personal representative” brings all the claims of the statutory beneficiaries and of the decedent, that are allowable under law, in a single civil suit. This suit is usually filed where the death or injury occurred and must be brought within certain allowable timeframes or "statutes of limitation." 

The causes of wrongful death can be many but are often auto accidents, medical malpractice, or workplace injuries caused by a third party. An experienced personal injury lawyer is needed to help the personal representative decide if there is a wrongful death case to pursue. Contacting a lawyer right away is critically important following a death.

What are the key elements in a Wrongful Death case?

To file a wrongful death claim in Washington, four elements must be proven:

  • Duty to exercise care: Demonstrating that the person at fault owed a “duty of care” to the deceased.
  • Negligence or breach of duty: Establishing that the person at fault failed to exercise reasonable care.
  • Causation: Showing a clear link factually and legally between negligence and death.
  • Actual damages: Demonstrating the extent of financial, emotional, and physical loss resulting from the death.

Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?

In Washington state, a wrongful death lawsuit is filed by the Personal Representative of the deceased person. This person is usually appointed by Will or is a close living relative appointed, with the help of our lawyers, by the Court.  This person brings all claims for all beneficiaries, heirs, and the deceased person in a single suit.  There is a complex legal analysis under RCW § 4.20 et seq as to exactly who and how much can be collected by certain types of heirs.

Who can collect on a wrongful death lawsuit?

Under Washington law, a spouse, state-registered domestic partner, or child (including stepchildren) of the deceased person may collect damages in a wrongful death claim.  In the absence of these specific relatives, parents or siblings of the deceased may collect damages.  RCW § 4.20.020.  The damages collectible include the economic losses suffered by the estate, the pain and suffering of the decedent up to the moment of death, and the loss of value of the relationship by certain beneficiaries.  These elements are unique and different in every case and must be properly analyzed by an experienced wrongful death attorney.

How is the value of a case determined?

Factors considered in determining damages include medical bills, funeral costs, lost wages, pain and suffering, and loss of companionship or loss of parenting. At the end of the trial, a jury assesses these damages based on the deceased person's age, relationships, earning capacity, health, life expectancy, and the impact of their death on beneficiaries. Each case is entirely unique and depends on the extent of the relationship between the deceased person and the family members left behind. As you might imagine, a long-term marriage results in a higher award to a spouse, typically, than that of a short-term marriage. Likewise, the case of a deceased father who talked to his adult children weekly will be seen to have a higher case value than the death of a father who only talked to his children once per year. These issues are complex and emotional. Our lawyers know how to talk about these sensitive topics carefully with both large and small families.  We have represented families with only a spouse left behind and we have represented those with six children and a spouse. All families are unique, and we understand the complexities of families—particularly blended families. Our firm has likely handled more wrongful death claims in eastern Washington than any other firm.

How long do I have to file a lawsuit in Washington State?

If the death occurs in the State of Washington, generally, there is a three-year window from the date of the person's death to file a wrongful death claim. If you do not file a suit formally in court by the three-year anniversary, the claim is forever barred.  This is known as the “statute of limitations.” While there are some nuances to this rule, this is the safest standard to use. Please note that every state has its own laws and timeframes for wrongful death suits. You must reach out to a qualified wrongful death attorney as soon as possible following a death to talk about these important deadlines.

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