Who Can (potentially) Recover Damages Pursuant to Washington’s Wrongful Death and Survival Statutes?

October 25th, 2013 - Carmichael Clark

The Washington wrongful death statute, RCW 4.20.010, provides that when the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act of another, the personal representative may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the death. “The measure of damages is the actual pecuniary loss suffered by the surviving beneficiaries from the death of their relative, including loss of services, love, affection, care, companionship, and consortium.” Ginochio v. Hesston Corp., 46 Wash.App. 843, 846, 733 P.2d 551 (1987).

The wrongful death statute, however, is expressly limited to two tiers of beneficiaries:

The first tier of beneficiaries includes the spouse and children of the deceased; these beneficiaries need not establish dependence on the deceased.

The second tier of beneficiaries, which includes the parents and siblings of the deceased, may recover only if there are no first-tier beneficiaries and only if the designated beneficiaries were dependent for support on the deceased.

If the deceased had no spouse or children, and the deceased’s parents and siblings were not dependent on the deceased for support, there are no statutory beneficiaries, and there is no provision for wrongful death damages under RCW 4.20.010.

Parents of adult children and siblings, not dependent on the deceased for support, have been denied standing under the wrongful death statute repeatedly by Washington Courts.  See Tait v. Wahl 97 Wn. App. 765, 987 P.2d 127 (1999); Triplett v. Dep’t of Soc. & Health Servs. 166 Wn. App. 423, 268 P. 3d 1027 (2012).  However, an exception exists for second tier beneficiaries who assert the violation of a federal constitutional right (Section 1983 violations, as an example). See, Rentz v. Spokane County, 438 F. Supp. 2d 1252 (E.D. Wash. 2006).    

Washington’s special survival statute, RCW 4.20.060, allows the executor or administrator of a decedent’s estate to recover for the decedent’s damages, including any pain and suffering between the time of the injury and the time of death. Although RCW 4.20.060 is a survival statute because it continues “the cause of action of the decedent for the damages which the decedent could have claimed had the death not occurred,” damages recovered under RCW 4.20.060 “do not go through the estate, but are distributed directly to the statutory beneficiaries.” Parrish v. Jones, 44 Wash.App. 449, 454-55, 722 P.2d 878 (1986).  Like Washington’s wrongful death statute, however, RCW 4.20.060 is also expressly limited to the two tiers of beneficiaries listed in RCW 4.20.020. Benoy v. Simons, 66 Wash.App. 56, 61, 831 P.2d 167 (1992). If there is no recognizable beneficiary, then there are no recoverable damages for the deceased’s pain and suffering (if any), under Washington’s special survival statute.

According to Washington case-law, the compensable damages that the an estate of a decedent can recover are economic only, i.e. property damage, pre-death medical bills,  funeral expenses, and any loss of future earnings, pursuant to RCW 4.20.046. Future earnings have to be offset by expected consumption to get lost net accumulations of the decedent. An estate of a decedent could potentially recover “the decedent’s prospective net accumulations” if the decedent had survived to his/her life expectancy. See Wilson v. Grant, 162 Wash.App. 731, 258 P.3d 689 (2011).


-Jolyn Hunt, Attorney

Disclaimer: This article and blog are intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. They are not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.

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