Overview of Washington State's Wrongful Death Laws - Part One
The state of Washington has two main statutes that govern wrongful death actions. There is a general wrongful death statute and one that specifically applies to a parent's cause of action for the death of a child. In addition, there are statutes that address survival actions (e.g., to recover those damages the deceased could have claimed had the deceased survived). To some extent, these laws may overlap, particularly when a cause of action may include facts to support different theories of liability and different elements of damages. This chapter will address Washington's general wrongful death statutes.
Under Washington's general wrongful death statutes, an action may be brought on behalf of the deceased's estate and for the benefit of certain designated surviving relatives, also called "statutory beneficiaries" (because they are designated by the wrongful death statute). If there are no designated statutory beneficiaries, then the deceased person's estate may pursue a claim in limited circumstances but only certain economic damages are recoverable (e.g., future lost earnings, medical expenses, etc.).
The Washington legislature created what is called a "two-tiered" system of beneficiaries who may recover damages for the wrongful death of a person. This means that there are two levels of certain designated surviving relatives that have legal authority to recover damages caused by the death of a loved one. In the first tier, the wrongful death action is brought for the benefit of the deceased's surviving spouse, registered domestic partner, and/or children or stepchildren. If these survivors do not exist (i.e., the deceased was single and without children), then the claim may be brought on behalf of second-tier beneficiaries. (See below for examples of second-tier beneficiaries.) If both first-first tier and second-tier beneficiaries exist, then the wrongful death action is limited for the benefit of first-tier beneficiaries only.
In the case of a surviving spouse, that spouse must have been legally married to the deceased at the time of death. Historically, this meant that a surviving cohabitant or domestic partner could not recover damages for the wrongful death of a live-in partner. However, the wrongful death statute was recently amended to allow a surviving domestic partner to maintain a cause of action if the domestic partnership was registered with the state of Washington before the date of death.
The second-tier of wrongful death beneficiaries include surviving parents or siblings, but only if they were financially dependent on the deceased for support at the time of death. The Washington courts have determined that a surviving parent or sister/brother may only recover compensation if they were substantially dependent on the deceased for support. This means that unless the single and childless deceased was supporting a parent or sibling at the time of his or her death then no recovery can be made by any surviving relative.