Saturday, December 4, 2021
Dec. 4, 2021

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Washington legislature updates wrongful death law


OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature approved an update to the state’s wrongful death law late Monday, the latest reverberation from a fatal 2015 crash that cast a spotlight on a century-old state law.

The proposal would remove requirements that, after an accidental death in the state, family members must live in the United States and be economically dependent on the victim to be able to file a wrongful death claim here. The law dates to 1909.

The state House passed the bill on a 61-37 vote Monday. Having previously passed the Senate, it now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

“This bill is correcting not only a vestige of a xenophobic era, it is correcting the idea that a parent’s love should become less when a child turns 18,” said Seattle Democratic Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, who sponsored a companion to the measure.

That echoed the sentiment of the bill’s sponsor, Seattle Democratic Sen. Bob Hasegawa, who earlier called the 1909 clause racist, and said it dated to rules intended to protect American businesses from claims by the families of migrant workers.

A fatal 2015 crash in Seattle drew attention to the law, when an amphibious “Ride the Ducks” tour vehicle veered into oncoming traffic, killing five and injuring 69 when it struck a bus carrying mostly foreign college students.

Five international students died in the crash, but while a jury faulted Ride the Ducks for faulty maintenance, the company and a local subsidiary later invoked the state’s 1909 law as a defense against claims from one student’s family.

Widely used for road-and-water tours, amphibious vehicles like the one in the Seattle crash feature an angled hull with a pointed steel bow.

The vehicle involved in that Seattle incident was an Army surplus craft built in 1945 and later refurbished before a mechanical failure caused it to abruptly swerve into oncoming traffic on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge.

Broad objections

But Republicans broadly objected to the bill’s potential expansion of potential claimants — groups that would be able to sue for wrongful death damages.

Along with parents and siblings living outside the U.S., the bill would include parents of adult children more broadly, where current law limits such claims except in cases of financial dependence on an adult son or daughter.

Under the bill, parents would only need to prove “emotional (or) psychological … support” from their adult child to be eligible to file wrongful death claims.

“This bill says that you can sue for damages for loss of love,” said Rep. Brad Klippert, a Kennewick Republican, during debate over the bill.

Klippert added that he had heard from hospitals and business owners leading up to the debate, and that they had expressed concerns over increased costs from liability, and even being driven out of business by potential additional lawsuits.

“So many more people will now be able to sue,” Klippert said.

Santos said she saw allowing families to pursue claims as a basic form of justice.