Bill expanding wrongful death actions passes the Senate

By Taylor McAvoy

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — Proposed legislation would open the ability to file wrongful death lawsuits to citizens of other countries and to parents of adults.

Under current state law, a family member who wants to sue for the wrongful death of a loved one must be a U.S. citizen and a dependent of the deceased.

Senate Bill 6015, sponsored by Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill, would remove that requirement. The bill passed the Senate chamber on a 26-21 vote — including the “yes” vote from Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat — on Saturday.

“The purpose is to correct a historic injustice,” Hasegawa said at the bill’s public hearing in January.

He said the bill was written in response to an antiquated law from 1917 that targeted Chinese immigrant laborers.

The law required a person to be a U.S. citizen to seek a wrongful death case. This, he said, disproportionately affected Chinese women whose husbands died in unsafe working conditions.

“We are one of the very few states left that have this discriminatory, xenophobic, and antiquated law,” MingMing Tung-Edelman, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance said at the hearing.

In September 2015, a Ride the Ducks tour bus collided with a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. The families of five international students who died in the crash were unable to seek a wrongful death lawsuit because of the old law.

“This is an important bill for our community,” Hasegawa said. “Many communities banded together because of that Ride the Ducks accident and were collectively trying to correct that injustice.”

The bill’s original intent was to target the U.S. citizenship requirement, but in working with lawyers, Hasegawa’s bill grew to encompass parents’ rights to file lawsuits for adults.

Current law says that only if the parents are dependant on a child can they file a wrongful death suit. If that person had no spouse or children of their own, no one else can file a suit on their behalf.

Jeff Chale said he lost his daughter, who was a medical volunteer in communities abroad. She died in September 2014 when a bus driver crossed the centerline on a Vashon Island highway and struck her car, according to the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber.

“Because she was 22 years old, not married, with no children, Washington state law treats her as if she didn’t matter,” he said. “It treats my wife and I as if we don’t exist.”

Multiple other families testified before lawmakers about the children they lost and were unable to seek legal action.

Katie Kolan, representing the Washington State Medical Association, said the language in the bill is overly broad when it comes to how many people could seek liability and the damages that they are eligible to win.

She said the bill might cause unintended consequences. For example, physicians could fear litigation, she said, and some may leave their practices for larger institutions or avoid providing complex services.

She also said the bill might lead to increased legal claims and, by consequence, increased premiums on malpractice protections.

Speaking against the bill for Washington State Hospital Association, Lisa Thatcher said that the issue of expanding who can file a wrongful death suit and what damages they can seek should be separate issues.

Thomas Miller, speaking for the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers said changes in the existing statutes will result in increased litigation with taxpayer dollars to even understand how to apply the new bill, because it would overturn existing case law.

A companion bill, House Bill 2262, is on the floor calendar.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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