There are five inter-related statutes that determine whether or not a wrongful death and/or survival claim exists.  These statutes are RCWs 4.24.010, 4.20.010, 4.20.020, 4.20.046, and 4.20.060.  Because wrongful death and survival claims in Washington are creatures of statute—not of the common law—courts are bound by the terms of the statutes.

When considering the potential for state law claims arising after a person’s death, an attorney must do more than simply look at whether another party’s wrongful conduct caused the decedent’s death or pre-death injury.  This is because the Washington statutes only allow certain causes of action if the decedent was survived by certain designated categories of people.  Depending on the existence of such beneficiaries, the same negligent, reckless or even intentional conduct can result in a strong legal case or, potentially, no legal case at all.

The wrongful death statutes create causes of action for certain surviving beneficiaries of the deceased person.  In the case of an adult decedent, the beneficiaries are divided into two tiers.  The first tier consists of any surviving spouse, state registered domestic partner, children or stepchildren.  If there is neither a surviving spouse, domestic partner, child, or stepchild, there is a second possible tier.  That second tier consists of parents or siblings.  First or second tier beneficiaries can recover their own damages for the loss of their loved one. Because of amendments to the law in 2019, financial dependence of beneficiaries is no longer required as a condition of recovery. Wrongful death cases for the death of an adult must be pursued by a court-appointed personal representative who acts on behalf of the eligible beneficiaries.

The Washington survival statutes are found at RCW 4.20.046 and .060.  RCW 4.20.046 is known as the general survival statute.  It purports to preserve all claims the decedent could have brought had he or she survived.  RCW 4.20.060 is known as the special survival statute, since it specifically relates to injuries that cause death.  Together, the statutes purport to preserve the claims the decedent would have had had he or she not died.

A large body of Washington case law has developed describing this statutory scheme, explaining the distinctions between wrongful death and survival claims, and otherwise analyzing the permutations and nuances of the wrongful death and survival statutes.

In reviewing the case law, it is important to keep in mind that the 2019 amendments to the wrongful death and survival laws have, fortunately, liberalized previous limitations to recovery and that the limits discussed in the case law preceding the statute’s amendment may no longer be applicable.

At Budge & Heipt, we largely focus on cases involving wrongful death and sometimes assert state law claims independently or as supplemental claims associated with federal causes of action. Please feel free to contact us if you have a potential case to discuss. The remarks above are no substitute for independent legal research and do not replace the need for lawyers to review the statutes and the case law independently and to advise potential clients accordingly.  Periodic reference to the statutes and case law is a must for any attorney who wishes to practice in this area on a regular basis.

If you are a potential client with a case arising from the death of a loved one, please call our office for a free consultation.  If you are an attorney considering a potential case and want to discuss a potential case or arrangement regarding co-representation, please feel free contact us here, and we’ll be happy to take the time to talk with you.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.