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Washington State Wrongful Death Info You Should know

I realize this is not a divorce topic or a Washington divorce lawyers for men topic.  It doesn’t even have to do with family law but it could affect your family in a different way and it is information that we all need to know.

Wrongful death settlements are awards which are given to surviving family members when someone is killed due to the actions of another.  Wrongful death actions can benefit the wife, husband, parent, and child of the person whose death was caused by the wrongful or negligent act of the tortfeasor.   Heirs and next of kin of the decedent are entitled to maintain a wrongful death action. It seems that this is a straight forward definition, as long as you are a family member then you should have the right to file suit and be compensated for that wrong doing.
Wrongful death statutes differ considerably in identifying the beneficiaries.  In Washington state RCW 4.20.020 was written by the legislature to establish two different layers of beneficiaries, it defines the different layers of who is authorized to bring a suit and who can benefit from a wrongful death action. The first layer includes the spouse, state registered domestic partner, and children of the decedent; the second layer being parents and siblings of the decedent.  The trick here is that the second layer is only entitled to recover if there are no first layers available and only if you were financially dependent on the decedent for support.  
It is the courts duty to interpret and follow the statue and to ascertain and carry out the legislative intent of that statute.  The court cannot go beyond or define the statute different than what was written.

An example of this is the case of Triplett v. DSHS where as Ms. Smith was developmentally disabled from birth and resided in a care facility for most of her life. She had been diagnosed with profound retardation and functioned at the mental age of five.  She had also been diagnosed with a seizure disorder.  Ms. Smith’s care plan included a visual supervisional plan by staff in order to keep her safe.  While taking a bath, a care giver left her in the bath tub alone and she drowned.  Ms. Smith’s mother and brother frequently and routinely visited her at the facility.  After the death Ms. Smith’s mother and brother were appointed co-personal representatives of Ms. Smith’s estate and both filed a wrongful death action against DSHS.
DSHS moved to dismiss the claims under the Washington law statutes that clearly stated that the parents or siblings of an adult cannot sue for damages because they were not dependent upon the deceased for financial support.  The court granted a review on the matter and looked closely at the statute to see if it applied to limit and exclude potential beneficiaries of a 52 year old that was mentally disabled from birth and was mentally at the age of 7-8 at the time of her death.   At the end the court found that Ms. Smith’s disability was inconsequential because she did not support her mother or brother.  The court granted the summary judgment to DSHS.
A lesson that we should all take from this, is that the laws that are written by our legislative bodies should be scrutinized, dissected, and thoroughly thought out before becoming final.  There are always certain circumstances that arise with every situation and no one should be denied their right to file suit and or be compensated for a wrong doing of a family member.  


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