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Washington Wrongful Death Statute of Limitations

Posted on : February 29, 2024Posted By : Russell HillPosted In : Wrongful Death

If your family has lost a loved one because of someone else’s wrongful acts or omissions, Washington State law may give you the right to file a wrongful death claim against that person. Doing so can allow you to recover compensation for the financial and emotional losses you’ve suffered as a result of your loss. However, the law also imposes a deadline on how long you have to file your wrongful death lawsuit through a law called a statute of limitations.

Overview of Washington State Wrongful Death Laws

Under Washington State law, a family can recover compensation for financial and personal losses they incur due to a loved one’s passing when that death occurs due to the wrongful acts of another party. A wrongful death may occur due to a party’s intentional acts, such as a criminal offense, or due to a party’s negligent or reckless conduct, such as a car accident.

Understanding the Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations is a law that sets the legal deadline for a given action, in this case, filing a lawsuit to pursue a civil claim. Legislatures have enacted statutes of limitations to ensure the prompt resolution of legal claims. When a party files a lawsuit after the applicable statute of limitations has expired on their claim, the defendant(s) in the action have a defense to liability and can file a motion to dismiss the case as untimely.

Each type of civil claim has a different statute of limitations. The Washington wrongful death statute of limitations (Wash. Rev. Code § 4.16.080(2)) typically requires a family to file theirs within three years of their loved one’s death. However, a different statute of limitations applies to wrongful death claims arising from medical malpractice. For wrongful death claims caused by medical malpractice, families have three years from the date of the alleged negligent care or one year from the date they discovered the harm that led to their loved one’s death.

State law has adopted statutes of limitations for several reasons. First, imposing deadlines on legal claims ensures that claimants bring their claims before evidence gets lost over time. When claimants wait too long to file their claims, they risk letting evidence disappear or witnesses’ memories fade, making it challenging to resolve cases based on the evidence and facts. Statutes of limitations also provide potential defendants with finality, should claimants not file lawsuits within the limitations period. Once the limitations period expires on a claim, a potential defendant can rest assured that they no longer have any potential financial liability for a claim.

Exceptions to the Statute of Limitations

Washington State law provides several exceptions to the typical deadlines under the statutes of limitations. These exceptions include:

  • The statute of limitations tolls (pauses) when the defendant(s) is outside Washington State or attempts to conceal themselves within Washington.
  • When a minor has a legal claim, the statute of limitations begins to run once the minor turns 18.
  • A person suffering from a physical or mental disability or legal incompetency that prevents them from understanding the nature of legal proceedings can toll the statute of limitations until they recover from their disability or incompetency.
  • The statute of limitations also tolls for a claimant during any period of detention on a criminal charge before sentencing.
  • Any injunction or statutory prohibition on a legal claim can toll the limitations period for that claim.

Under the discovery rule, claimants may seek to toll the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims. The discovery rule operates as an exception to the standard deadline under the statute of limitations. Under this rule, the limitations period only runs on a legal claim once the claimant discovers their injury or harm or learns the facts supporting their claim.

Parties Eligible to File a Wrongful Death Claim

Under Washington State’s wrongful death statute, only the personal representative of a decedent’s estate may pursue a wrongful death claim. However, the personal representative maintains the wrongful death claim on behalf of a decedent’s eligible beneficiaries, including:

  • The decedent’s surviving spouse or state-registered domestic partner
  • The decedent’s surviving children (including stepchildren)
  • The decedent’s parents or siblings, if the decedent has no surviving spouse/domestic partner or children

However, a parent or legal guardian may file or join a wrongful death action filed after the death of their child if the child has no surviving spouse, domestic partner, or child of their own, and the parent or guardian regularly contributed to support a minor child or had “significant involvement” in an adult child’s life. “Significant involvement” includes demonstrated emotional, psychological, or financial support of a child around the time of the child’s death.

Damages Recoverable in Wrongful Death Claims

In a wrongful death case, surviving beneficiary family members may recover compensation for various financial and personal losses they incur due to a loved one’s passing caused by another party’s fault. Examples of losses recoverable in a wrongful death case include:

  • The decedent’s final medical expenses
  • Lost financial support that the decedent would have contributed to surviving beneficiaries
  • Reasonable funeral and burial expenses
  • The value of household services that the decedent performed
  • Loss of the decedent’s care, affection, companionship, and guidance

When a parent or legal guardian files or joins a wrongful death lawsuit for their deceased child, they may recover compensation for:

  • Their child’s final healthcare expenses
  • Loss of the child’s household services and financial support to their parent/guardian
  • Loss of the child’s emotional support, love, and companionship
  • Loss of the parent-child relationship

Steps to Filing a Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Washington

A wrongful death case involves the following steps:

  • First, a personal representative or parent/guardian should consult with a wrongful death attorney to determine whether they have a viable wrongful death claim and the applicable deadlines for filing those claims.
  • Next, your attorney will investigate the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death to recover evidence proving that another party’s actions or omissions caused your loved one’s passing.
  • Your attorney can also help you gather documentation to support your compensation claim, including medical bills, funeral home invoices, invoices for replacement services, and your loved one’s pay stubs or income statements.
  • An attorney can help you or your loved one’s personal representative file a wrongful death lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires on your family’s wrongful death claim.

Common Challenges and How to Overcome Them

Pursuing wrongful death claims can involve several challenges and obstacles, such as:

  • Determining the statute of limitations: Some wrongful death claims involve disputes over whether a personal representative or parent/guardian filed the case before the statute of limitations expired on the claim.
  • Proving liability: Depending on the circumstances of a decedent’s passing, a personal representative or parent pursuing a wrongful death claim may find it challenging to prove the other party’s or parties’ fault for a loved one’s death.
  • Calculating and proving financial/emotional loss: Much of the compensation in a wrongful death claim includes surviving family members’ future financial losses and emotional loss from their loved one’s passing. Liable parties may dispute the calculation of a family’s total future financial loss due to a loved one’s death. Family members may also have trouble quantifying the value of the emotional harm and loss they have suffered.

The Impact of Wrongful Death on Survivors

Losing a loved one due to another party’s negligence or fault can have significant financial and emotional consequences for surviving family members. In addition to the loss of a loved one’s affection, companionship, and life guidance, family members may also face devastating financial losses from a deceased loved one’s final medical expenses, funeral/burial costs, and loss of a loved one’s financial contributions to the family.

Legal Precedents and Influential Cases in Washington

Several cases have shaped wrongful death law in Washington State, including Deggs v. Asbestos Corp. Ltd. In Deggs, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the expiration of a personal injury claim during a decedent’s lifetime also barred any wrongful death action based on the same injury.

Seeking Legal Assistance

A wrongful death claim can involve complex evidence and legal issues. Hiring an experienced attorney to help your family with your wrongful death claim can provide you with the legal guidance you need to navigate the claims process and the legal challenges that may arise in your case. Having an attorney handle the details of your claim can also give your family the space you need to grieve and heal after a loved one’s death.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the answers to some common questions that families may have about the statute of limitations for wrongful death claims in Washington State.

What happens if we file a lawsuit after the limitations period expires?

If your family files a wrongful death lawsuit after the limitations period expires on your claim, the party or parties you’ve filed suit against can file a motion to dismiss the case regardless of the merits of your family’s claim. If the trial court finds that the limitations period has expired, it can dismiss your case, and your family may lose the opportunity to hold those at fault for your loved one’s death accountable for what they’ve done.

When does the statute of limitations begin for a wrongful death claim?

The statute of limitations for a wrongful death claim usually begins running upon the decedent’s death. However, under the discovery rule, the limitations period might not begin until your family discovers the facts showing that someone’s negligence or fault caused your loved one’s death.

Contact an Attorney for Help with Wrongful Death Claims

If your family has lost a loved one due to the wrongful acts of another party, you deserve to seek justice and financial accountability for your loss. Contact Russell & Hill, PLLC, today for a free, no-obligation consultation with a compassionate wrongful death attorney to discuss your family’s legal rights and options.

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