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

Christina Nissen — Tia to friends and family — had a smile that lit up the room and a phone packed with sports schedules.

The 36-year-old didn’t have children of her own, but she was a devoted auntie to her four nieces. She never missed a game or even a practice, said her mother, Rhonda Nissen of Kennewick.

Everything changed on Oct. 21, 2016. Tia wasn’t feeling well.

She went to the emergency room at Lourdes Medical Center, the nearest hospital to her Burbank home. There, she complained of chest pain, breathing difficulty and nausea, her mother recalled.

Tests showed heart irregularities, including reduced blood flow.

Nissen said the emergency room staff didn’t seem to recognize her daughter was having a heart attack.

She wasn’t monitored, given nitroglycerine, oxygen or transported to Kadlec Regional Medical Center across town, where a cardiologist reportedly was on duty in the cath lab.

Twenty minutes after she arrived, Tia was given four baby aspirin tablets.

Twenty minutes after that, her condition worsened.

“She came up off the gurney clutching her chest and crying, saying ‘Mama it hurts,’” Nissen recalled.

A little over an hour later, Tia Nissen was dead.

Parent-child bond

The Nissen family considered a wrongful death suit, but Washington is one of an estimated five states that doesn’t allow parents of adults to sue unless the parent is financially dependent on the child.

Nissen has joined a chorus of grieving parents who are demanding the Legislature give them the same right to take their case to court as any other grieved person.

Critics say Washington’s 1900s era law disrespects the parent-child bond and dismisses the value of the lives of unmarried, childless adults.

“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 Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, who sponsored a bill to give parents the right to sue when adult children are harmed by negligence.

Nissen shared her daughter’s story with the Herald and the Legislature to help put put a face on the legal gap.

The debate is pitting heartbroken family members against powerful groups that represent hospitals, doctors, defense lawyers, cities and county governments.

House and Senate versions of the bill would to scrap the “financially dependent” standard and replace it with a parent or legal guardian having “significant involvement” in the adult child’s life.

The definition includes “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.

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

Wrongful death bill advances

Nissen — who testified in support of HB 1135 at a House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee meeting — said a lawsuit is the only way to hold people accountable for negligence that leads to death.

The committee approved HB 1135. Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, serves on the committee and voted against the bill, which is now in the House Appropriations Committee.

It faces a March 1 deadline for passage.

The companion bill, SB 5163, has passed the Senate Law and Justice Committee and is pending int he senate Ways and Means committee, where it faces the same March 1 deadline.

The appropriations committee held an emotionally charged hearing this week.

If if passes, the new litigation standard would lead to an estimated 20 percent increase in wrongful death suits against the state with an estimated payout of $3 million per biennium.

Local governments would see a similar increase, according to legislative staff reports.

Medical negligence claim

Nissen said Lourdes was medically negligent for not recognizing her daughter was having a heart attack, despite her family history. Nissen’s sister — Tia’s aunt — died of heart disease in her mid-20s.

“I want to know why they didn’t get my daughter the care she deserved, why they didn’t follow the standard protocol,” she said.

Rhonda Nissen holds a photos of her daughter, Christina “Tia,” inside of her home in Kennewick. Nissen is working to change a law that doesn’t allow parents to sue for wrongful death when adult children die by negligence. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Nissen said her daughter, a Kamiakin High graduate, was devoted to her two younger sisters and was an attentive daughter. Nissen was a single mother from the time Tia 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.

She’d worked in a local casino and at Hanford before becoming a paralegal. When she died, she was working in the adult protective services division of the stat Department of Social and Health Services.

Lourdes Medical Center

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 healthcare needs of our community and remains steadfast in our commitment to deliver high quality, compassionate care each and every day.”

Rhonda Ellis of Anacortes was unable to pursue a lawsuit when her 25-year-old-son, daughter-in-law and infant grandson were killed in 2015 when construction workers lost control of a concrete barrier and it fell onto the cab of their pickup project.

Contractors on a city project in Bonney Lake were demolishing part of the bridge during a widening project to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Ellis told lawmakers that preventing parents from pursuing damages because they’re not financially dependent on their adult children is “seriously ridiculous.”

“This is a child I carried in my womb. That should be enough of a right.”

Cost and liability

Opponents of HB 1135, and its companion SB 5163, say it will trigger a sharp increase in lawsuits, especially since it will apply to pending lawsuits and those that could be filed before the three-year statute of limitations expires.

“It expands who qualifies to sue beyond the immediate and extended family members to anyone” in the deceased person’s estate, said Jaclyn Greenberg, a lobbyist who is policy director for legal affairs at the Washington State Hospital Association.

Washington’s joint-and-several liability rules mean hospitals could have to pay the entire amount in a wrongful-death lawsuit, even if it was only 1 percent at fault, she said.

Under joint and several liability, all defendants in a lawsuit are responsible for the full amount of plaintiff’s damages, regardless of their individual share of responsibility for the incident.

Joint and several liability 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.

Opponents include the Washington State Medical Association, the Washington State Association of Counties, the Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles and the Washington Defense Trial Lawyers Association.

Supporters say negligent health care providers and government agencies, should not have special protections in state law.

“I think it’s time that our law made that switch and came down on the side of the rights and recognition of the loss these families have suffered,“ said Larry Shannon, a lobbyist with the Washington State Association for Justice, a civil justice advocacy organization.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.