OLYMPIA — A proposal prompted by the 2015 “Ride the Ducks” accident on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle came one step closer to becoming law on Wednesday as people voiced their views on changes to Washington’s wrongful death and injury statutes that would expand the beneficiaries entitled to claim damages.
“The law currently does not allow a nonresident parent to seek justice,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Santos, D-Seattle. “It was a law that was established more than 100 years ago.”
Santos said the changes were prompted by the collision between a Ride the Ducks tourist vehicle and a chartered school bus carrying students from North Seattle College in 2015, killing five international students and injuring more than 60 other people. Santos’ bill would allow parents to claim a wrongful death regardless of their residency.
“Our concern regarding H.B. 1135 is not with the residency requirement. We absolutely support that change in the law,” said Jennifer Burkhardt, chief human resources officer and general counsel at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles. “Our concern is with the other changes that increase legal exposure and will lead to increases in insurance premiums.”
Other provisions allow parents of adult children to seek recoveries if they had “significant involvement” in the child’s life. Under current law, a parent may not seek wrongful death if they are not financially dependent on the adult child.
“This is my son Bradley,” Lake Stevens resident Deanna Hogue told the committee, fighting back tears as she held up a picture of her son taken three days before he was killed while working at Pacific Topsoils. She said Bradley died after his supervisor ordered him to step in the back of a bark-blowing truck with a defective auger.
In 2016, The Seattle Times reported that the King County prosecuting attorney took the “rare” step of filing criminal charges against Pacific Topsoils for “willfully and knowingly” violating safety laws. Because Bradley was 19 at the time of the accident and his parents did not depend on him financially, they were not able to sue for wrongful death.
“Imagine, for those of you who are parents, receiving this soul-crushing news,” Hogue said. “Then imagine learning you had no legal rights to hold these people accountable for the preventable death of your child.”
Some organizations expressed concern with Washington’s “joint and several liability” rule, which says if one party is found 1 percent liable for a cause of action, they would still be 100 percent liable for damages if other liable parties were unable to pay. Expanding the number of beneficiaries would increase liability insurance premiums, Burkhardt said.
“There is the possibility that we are held to a much greater amount of damages than we should be under this particular law,” she said. “And further expanding it to include non-economic damages and some of the other expansions would make this even more unfair to an organization that is already struggling to maintain stability for the community.”
In both the current and proposed version of the law, a parent is not eligible for damages if the adult child has a domestic partner, spouse or children. The proposal would allow each parent to file separate claims regardless of marital status, and expands the damages that may be claimed, including anxiety, loss of emotional support, and humiliation.
H.B. 1135 is retroactive and if passed, would apply to all claims that are not time barred and all claims pending in court on the date the legislation becomes effective.
The bill is scheduled to enter an executive session on Feb. 1.