Losing a loved one is always a painful and emotional experience but when the loss was caused by someone else’s negligence or wrongful action, the pain can be magnified. If your loved one died as a result of another’s negligence or wrongful action – whether by a car crash, medical malpractice, or intentional action – they may have suffered a wrongful death and a wrongful death lawsuit may be an appropriate course of action.
In your state of grief, you may be feeling overwhelmed but still determined to seek justice for this unnecessary loss. You may have questions about what evidence you will need to gather, what type of lawyer you should hire and how to prevent this from ever happening again in your family. The first thing to do is call an experienced wrongful death attorney in your area.
Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in WA State
A wrongful death lawsuit is brought by the spouse or dependents of a person who has died as a result of the negligence or wrongful act of another person or entity. Every state, including Washington, has wrongful death laws in place to allow family members who suffer the wrongful death of a loved one to pursue compensation for their losses. In addition to the financial relief that a wrongful death settlement can bring, pursuing a wrongful death cause of action can help prevent unnecessary deaths by deterring those who cause accidents resulting in wrongful death.
In Washington State, “Wrongful Death” and “Survival” statutes define the permitted actions and permitted beneficiaries in claims on behalf of the aggrieved family and loved ones. The action is brought by the “personal representative” of the decedent’s estate. Along with the family, the personal representative is entrusted to hire a wrongful death lawyer on behalf of the estate.
Wrongful death settlements
Wrongful death lawsuits seek to recover a variety of “pecuniary” or financial damages including funeral and medical expenses, lost wages, loss of support and services, potential inheritance, loss of love and affection and loss of companionship. The amount of pecuniary loss is determined by a jury based on the age, character, and condition of the decedent and the quality of the relationship with the plaintiff, his/her earning capacity, life expectancy, health and intelligence, as well as the circumstances of the beneficiaries of the estate.
Proving a wrongful death case
The following four elements must be proved for a successful wrongful death claim:
- Duty to exercise reasonable care – In order to be liable for an accident or injury, a person or organization must have a duty to exercise care. For example, a business owner must provide a safe environment or warn of a hazard to prevent a slip and fall. What defines reasonable care may depend on the situation.
- Failure to exercise reasonable care (negligence) – Next, a personal injury attorney must prove that the defendant breached their duty to exercise reasonable care. For example, a physician failing to order tests to confirm a diagnosis for symptoms.
- Causation – The third element that must be proved is causation. This means that there must be a direct link between the negligent behavior and the harm caused to the injured victim. At a minimum, the breach of duty must have at least contributed to the injury.
- Actual damages suffered – There is no claim unless the victim suffered damages. It’s also generally not advisable to pursue a personal injury claim if the injuries were minor. Recoverable damages include: medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional trauma, loss of consortium, and disability.
A personal injury attorney can determine whether your case has the four elements required for a successful personal injury claim. In addition, they can help you identify the damages involved in your case and what each of them is worth to give you a total valuation for a reasonable settlement.
Statute of Limitations on Wrongful Death Action
The statute of limitations for a wrongful death action in Washington State is three years. Wrongful death lawsuits statute of limitations are not delayed if the beneficiaries are minors because the suit is brought by the personal representative, not the minor.
Washington State’s Statutory Scheme
1. RCW 4.20.010 This general wrongful death statute creates a cause of action, brought by the personal representative, to compensate a decedent’s surviving family members for “pecuniary,” (monetary) losses they sustained as a result of the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another.
2. RCW 4.20.020 This statute assigns two tiers of beneficiaries to the statutory wrongful death action. The first tier includes the wife, husband, state registered domestic partner, child or children, including stepchildren of the deceased. The second tier includes the parents, sisters or brothers of the deceased. The second tier may only recover damages if there are no first-tier beneficiaries and if the designated beneficiaries were dependent for support on the deceased.
3. RCW 4.20.060 This special Survival Statute allows for the deceased’s action for wrongful death to survive. The decedent’s own action for personal injuries causing death may be brought by the personal representative of the decedent’s estate on behalf of the beneficiaries listed above. If there are no statutory beneficiaries as defined in RCW 4.20.020, no claim can be brought under the Special Survival Statute.
4. RCW 4.20.046 This “General Survival Statute” allows the personal representative of the decedent’s estate to recover economic accumulations minus the personal expenses the estate would reasonably have acquired over their expected life term. This statute provides that noneconomic damages such as for the deceased’s pain and suffering may not be recovered.
5. RCW 4.24.010 This statute allows the recovery of pain, suffering and expenses for the wrongful injury or death of a child.
What are the steps in a wrongful death lawsuit?
A wrongful death lawyer starts by gathering all relevant documents and evidence required for a successful outcome. He or she will interview all witnesses and retain expert witnesses who can prove that the death was caused by the negligence of a person or entity.
After the information has been gathered and expert witness interviews have been conducted:
- The attorney will serve a “complaint” on the defendant. The complaint is an official, detailed document that describes the reason for the lawsuit and why the defendant is being sued. In Washington State, the defendant is typically allowed 20 days after the date of service to answer.
- In the pre-trial litigation phase (also called the “discovery” phase) your wrongful death attorney will discuss the details of the case with the defense team and will decide if the case can be settled out of court or if it will continue to trial. This is typically the longest part of the case, sometimes stretching on for several months or years.
- Settlement or trial. The majority of personal injury lawsuits including wrongful death are settled out of court, sometimes right before a trial begins. Once a case is settled, the plaintiff usually receives damages within a few months, but this can vary depending on the state.
Patience is required for a wrongful death lawsuit. In many cases attorneys are able to negotiate a fair settlement without going to trial, but it can take several months or more to come to an agreement. A settlement is often a more desirable solution than going to trial, since a trial typically takes longer with increased costs and there is a chance of losing or that the other party will appeal any trial decision.
If you lost a loved one, you have enough on your plate. Let an experienced wrongful death lawyer fight for the justice and fair compensation that you deserve. It is not uncommon to receive a settlement from the insurance company that is five to ten times larger with the help of a lawyer. Call the caring, tireless, experienced wrongful death attorneys at Tario & Associates, P.S. in Mount Vernon, WA today for a FREE consultation! We have been representing residents of Skagit County, Whatcom County and surrounding areas since 1979. You will pay nothing up front and no attorney fees at all unless we recover damages for you!