Grieving parents say Washington’s wrongful-death law is unfair. They want changes

This Tri-Cities mother is working to change a law after her daughter’s death

Kennewick mother Rhonda Nissen testified at the state Legislature to change wrongful-death laws in Washington.
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Kennewick mother Rhonda Nissen testified at the state Legislature to change wrongful-death laws in Washington.

Today, joggers, cyclists and people walking their dogs enjoy the wider highway overpass above Angeline Road in Bonney Lake, Rhonda Ellis said.

“But if you go down below, you will see three people — my people — are no longer; only a reminder of that fatal day,” said Ellis, who lives in Anacortes.

Her 25-year-old son, daughter-in-law and infant grandson were killed in 2015 when a concrete barrier being cut by workers fell and landed on the cab of their pickup. Contractors on a city project were demolishing part of the bridge during a widening project to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Ellis cannot legally bring a wrongful-death claim and receive damages because of a controversial state law that is pitting grieving family members against powerful groups that represent hospitals, doctors, defense lawyers, cities and county governments.

The law says parents can bring such claims for the wrongful death of their unmarried adult son or daughter — 18 years or older — only if they are financially dependent on their child.

“Seriously ridiculous,” Ellis recently told legislators who are considering a bill in committee to revise the law. “This is a child I carried in my womb. That should be enough of a right.”

The bill would scrap the financial dependency standard and replace it with a parent or legal guardian having “significant involvement” in the adult child’s life. The definition of significant involvement would include “either giving or receiving emotional, psychological support to or from the child.” That standard also would apply to siblings who are beneficiaries of the estate.

“A person who is 18 years or older without dependents of his or her own does not have a value associated with his or her life,” said the House bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle. “In other words, parents of such an individual are barred from seeking justice when death occurs as the result of negligence.”

Damages can’t be collected under current law by parents, legal guardians or siblings if the deceased had a spouse, domestic partner or children. That would not change under the bill.

Opponents of HB 1135, and its companion SB 5163, predict it would trigger a sharp increase in lawsuits, especially since it would apply to pending lawsuits and those that could be filed before the three-year statute of limitations expires. A potential jump in lawsuits significantly increases the liability of hospitals because the bill also includes the state legal standard known as “joint and several liability,” said Jaclyn Greenberg, a lobbyist who is policy director for legal affairs at the Washington State Hospital Association.

Hospitals could have to pay the entire amount in a wrongful-death lawsuit even if they were only one percent at fault, Greenberg said. That could happen if the deceased person was not at fault in his or her death and there were at least two defendants. Each of those defendants could be held liable for the full amount of a plaintiff’s damages. A single defendant could be held responsible for the total amount of damages even if it is responsible for the wrongful death to a small degree.

Joint and several liability also is unfair to city governments that could be sued, said Sharon Swanson, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Cities.

“We believe we should pay if we’ve created or contributed to a situation where there is loss of life,” Swanson told the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee. “Our point is we believe we should pay in proportion with the responsibility that is determined by a court.”

Other groups and businesses urging lawmakers to oppose the bill include the the Washington State Medical Association, the Washington State Association of Counties, the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association and the Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles.

Washington state has had an average of about 84 wrongful-death cases filed per year over the last five years, said Larry Shannon, a lobbyist with the Washington State Association for Justice, a civil justice advocacy organization. The Attorney General’s Office has estimated there will be a 20 percent increase in lawsuits if the bill becomes law. That would that mean 16 more wrongful-death cases per year, Shannon said.

“Money is only paid when the entity is responsible, and, but for their actions, the death of another human would not have occurred,” Shannon said.

The House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee has approved HB 1135. It is in the House Appropriations Committee and faces a March 1 deadline for passage. SB 5163 has passed the Senate Law and Justice Committee and is pending in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where it faces the same March 1 deadline for passage. The lead sponsor is Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill.

Backers of the bills said negligent health care providers as well as government agencies should not have special protections in state law.

Kennewick resident Rhonda Nissen said her daughter, Christina, whose nickname was Tia, arrived at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco on Oct. 21, 2016 after suffering pains and having difficulty breathing.

Nissen — who testified in support of HB 1135 at a House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee meeting — said emergency room doctors gave her daughter a test that records the electrical activity of the heart, which showed she was experiencing a reduction of blood flow to her heart.

“Nobody hooked her up to a monitor despite signs of a distressed heart. She was not given [nitroglycerin]. Also she was not put on oxygen despite difficulty breathing,” said Nissen, who said her daughter died from cardiac arrest.

Nissen accused Lourdes Medical Center of “preventable negligent health care.” She said the wrongful-death law barred her from legally bringing a claim and collecting damages.

The reason: she was not financially dependent on her daughter.

“She was 36 years old. She was not married. She did not have children. That did not mean she did not have family who loved and cared for her very much. As a single parent from the time she was 7, she was my confidant, my emotional support when needed and my best friend. She was an integral part of my daily life,” Nissen said.

Lisa Larson, a spokeswoman for Lourdes Health Network, said in an email: “Due to patient privacy laws, we are unable to discuss this or any matter involving current or former patients. As always, Lourdes Medical Center considers it a privilege to serve the health care needs of our community and remains steadfast in our commitment to deliver high quality, compassionate care each and every day.”

Puyallup resident Paul Mahoney said his 22-year-old daugher, Ella, died last year of “preventable medical negligence.” He and his wife, Loli, urged the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month to approve the bill changing the wrongful-death law.

In an interview after his testimony, Mahoney said his daughter died in a hospital after not receiving a transplant. He declined to offer more details.

Mahoney told the committee that his daughter, a graduate of Western Washington University, worked for the Museum of Flight in Seattle and was planning to get her master’s degree in the practice of organizing, arranging and managing museums.

“The loss of a loved one is one of the most painful losses one can experience. It is often said the experience of burying your own child is the worst. This is especially true when your child’s life is cut short and the people and institutions responsible for your child’s death are not held accountable under the law,” he said.