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Man whose brother died in Tacoma group home can sue for funeral costs

The brother of a developmentally disabled Tacoma man won what he called “a small victory” Wednesday when the state Court of Appeals ruled he could try to recover the costs of his brother’s funeral from the group home where he died five years ago.

The three-judge panel from Division II rejected all of Earl Vernon’s other arguments, including that he should be able to sue Aacres Landing for wrongful death.

But Vernon said the court’s decision on the funeral costs is “a good first step” in his efforts to get justice for his brother.

Henry David Vernon, who went by David, died in July 2009 after his core body temperature reached lethal levels as he slept in an upstairs bedroom of Tacoma house operated by Aacres Landing.

A heat wave was baking the region at the time, with daytime temperatures reaching into the mid-90s.

Earl Vernon contends Aacres did not do enough to protect his brother, who was 55, from the heat, and he sued the company in July 2012.

Aacres has said it took all reasonable measures to protect its clients from the heat that summer. Four investigations into David Vernon’s death found he died of accidental causes.

Pierce County Judge Ronald Culpepper threw Earl Vernon’s lawsuit out of court without a trial in December 2012, ruling he did not have standing to bring it under the state’s wrongful death statutes.

Those laws limit the beneficiaries of such suits to the deceased person’s surviving spouse, state-registered domestic partner, children or stepchildren. Siblings or parents can sue, but only if they relied on the deceased for financial support.

Earl Vernon appealed.

Chief Judge Jill Johanson, writing for a unanimous panel, said Culpepper was right to dismiss all of Earl Vernon’s claims except his request for funeral expenses. The panel sent the case back to Culpepper for a hearing to determine the cost of David Vernon’s burial.

Earl Vernon, who argues that the state’s wrongful death laws discriminate against people such as his brother, said he plans to appeal the latest ruling to the Washington State Supreme Court.

“People like David, they’re never going to marry, they’re never going to have children because they’re so disabled,” he said. “If David had lived, he would have had a cause of action against the company. But because he died, he does not.

Hopefully, the Supreme Court will step in and do the right thing.”

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