The state of Washington is looking at changes in laws regarding who may file a wrongful death lawsuit. Proposed legislation would permit the parents of adult children to sue if their son or daughter’s death can be attributed to negligence.
To understand the proposed change, let’s take a step back and examine the standards for a wrongful death lawsuit. The conditions for winning such a lawsuit are the same as winning a suit for negligence.
Understanding the current standards for a wrongful death suit
The plaintiff must show that the defendant breached basic standard of care responsibilities and caused the accident. If the victim dies, it moves from negligence to wrongful death.
If the plaintiff wins, financial damages are awarded. These are based on an objective evaluation of what level of financial dependence the plaintiffs had on the victim and what the victim might reasonably have been expected to earn. A jury may also award punitive damages on top of that.
All of this is standard across the country. Washington is a state that restricts the right to sue to situations of financial dependency and if the children are under 18. There is no provision allowing a lawsuit on behalf of a 30-something adult, regardless of how close they may have been to their family.
The proposed legislation aims to fix this by a “significant involvement” standard, where parents and siblings that give and receive strong psychological support to and from the victim, would be able to sue.
In these cases, damages awarded would presumably be punitive. But there will surely be instances where parents can legitimately point out that their adult children were a key part of the safety net plan for years down the road.
Washington’s legislation is still in committee and faces strong opposition. Health care providers and governments at both the city and county level—the most likely targets of wrongful death lawsuits—are strongly opposed. Whether this bill garners popular support or dies quietly remains to be seen.