Politics & Government

Bill allowing parents to sue for the wrongful death of adult children heads to governor

For Puyallup resident Paul Mahoney, it was the first full night’s sleep he got since the session of the Washington state Legislature began in January.

Hours earlier, he watched on his computer as the House approved a bill that allows parents or legal guardians to bring claims for the wrongful death of their unmarried adult son or daughter — 18 years or older — if they had “significant involvement” in their life. That includes “either giving or receiving emotional, psychological support to or from the child.”

Current law says parents can bring such claims for the wrongful death of their unmarried adult son or daughter only if they are financially dependent on their child. Mahoney and his wife, Loli, are among many parents who don’t fit that definition. They and other parents offered mournful testimony at several committee meetings this year urging legislators to approve the bill changing the wrongful-death law. They said their 22-year-old daughter, Ella, died last year of “preventable medical negligence.”

“As for my wife and I, we’re just ecstatic that we got this through and that we don’t have to go through this battle again, because we would have,” Mahoney said Tuesday. “Testifying multiple times, it just tears you apart. This was the first time I got a full night’s sleep since this all started in January.”

For Rhonda Ellis, Monday’s House approval of SB 5163 was proof that legislators heard her.

Her 25-year-old son, daughter-in-law and infant grandson were killed in 2015 in Bonney Lake 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.

Since their deaths, Ellis has pushed for the change in state law. Unlike the Mahoneys, who are looking into a lawsuit against two hospitals in their daughter’s death, Ellis can’t file one now because the statute of limitations has expired.

“You can stand for what you believe in. Our voices are so huge. I fought for my son because he was worth fighting for. I fought for him because he was everything to me,” said Ellis, who lives in Anacortes. “We sleep and breathe every day that we do not have what we want the most in this life.

“This bill passing will not change how we feel, but it is going to give us perspective and honor to our family’s lives, and it also gives us the hope and reality that maybe people will take better measures to preserve life.”

The House approved the bill Monday evening by a 61-37 vote. The Senate approved it March 5.

“I believe this is a matter of justice,” said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill. “This is about helping to heal the broken hearts of moms and dads across the state of Washington. This bill corrects the false notion that an adult child is no longer a beloved child.”

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, opposed the bill.

“This bill says that you can actually sue for damages for loss of love, and I hope my family never does that if I’m the victim because I hope my love for them and their love for me does not have a monetary value,” Klippert said.

By a two-vote margin, the House earlier defeated two amendments to the bill.

The amendment offered by Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, would have exempted the bill from the state legal standard known as “joint and several liability.”

In opposing the bill, the Washington State Hospital Association and trade groups representing city and county governments warned that they could have to pay the entire amount in a wrongful-death lawsuit even if they were only 1 percent at fault.

They 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.

Stokesbary said the bill would “give justice to some families who badly need it,” but his amendment was needed because applying joint and several liability would “perpetuate some new injustices” for defendants.

“Awarding damages from somebody who’s only 1 percent at fault still doesn’t bring the loved one back, as painful as it can be. But all it does is perpetuate a different injustice, an injustice that says it doesn’t matter if you took every precaution — merely being 1 percent at fault can make you 100 percent liable for the damages,” he said.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, successfully urged his colleagues to defeat Stokesbary’s amendment.

“The bill before us adds a new group of plaintiffs who thus far have been denied justice,” said Goodman. “To deny full recovery, to deny making a party whole only for this new group of plaintiffs — these parents who have lost their loved ones — is not fair. We have to have equal treatment of all plaintiffs in a similar situation.”

The House voted 50-48 to reject Stokesbary’s amendment, along with one offered by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland. Springer’s amendment would have applied joint and several liability to defendants only if they were 50 percent or more at fault.

In a written statement Tuesday, Tim Pfarr, a spokesman for the Washington State Hospital Association, said: “We were disappointed that the bill did not take a balanced approach to this issue, and we are very concerned about the unintended consequences this new law will have. While we agree that those at fault should be held accountable in the event of a wrongful death, the law does not hold defendants liable in a fair manner.

“Those found to be at fault for a wrongful death should be held liable, but this law places hospitals in an unfair position, which we’re worried could impact access to health care in communities across our state,” Pfarr added.

In her floor speech in favor of the bill, Santos, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the House version of the measure, referred to a provision that did not generate controversy. It would remove the requirement that a parent must be a U.S. resident to bring wrongful death claims. The issue arose in 2016 when a federal judge dismissed claims by the South Korean parents of a student killed in the Ride the Ducks crash a year earlier in Seattle. The parents said the residency requirement in the wrongful death law was discriminatory.

The law that the Legislature passed in 1909 was among several nationwide to prevent lawsuits for the death of Chinese railroad and mine workers.

“This bill corrects the painful errors of our state’s history that were rooted in xenophobia,” Santos said.

SB 5163, whose lead sponsor is Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill, becomes law if Gov. Jay Inslee signs it.

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