Politics & Government

Washington parents now can sue for the wrongful death of their adult children

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.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law Friday that overhauls the state’s wrongful-death law.

“A really terrible tragedy brought us to this bill,” Inslee said, referring to the 2015 Ride the Ducks crash in Seattle that killed five people.

SB 5163 removes 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 who said the residency requirement 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.

Inslee also referred briefly to the bulk of the bill, which 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 have had “significant involvement” in their life.

Current law says parents can bring such claims for the wrongful death only if they are financially dependent on their child, and many parents don’t fit that definition.

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

Puyallup resident Loli Mahoney and Rhonda Ellis, who lives in Anacortes, attended the bill signing and embraced in tears afterward.

Mahoney, whose 22-year-old daughter, Ella, died last year of what she and her husband said was “preventable medical negligence,” said she felt “overjoyed” that the bill will become law.

“We feel like we honored our kids,” added Ellis, whose 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.

The bill becomes law 90 days after the regular session, which ends Sunday. The measure is retroactive, applying to all claims that are pending in court when the bill becomes law and also those that are not barred by the three-year statute of limitation.

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