Death is hard for people to talk about. It’s even harder when the death was traumatic and unexpected. Over the years, we have talked with a lot of folks about how wrongful death claims and settlements work – sometimes, it is easier to read about it than to hear a lawyer talk about it.
What does wrongful death mean?
“Wrongful death” is the legal term for an unnatural death, resulting from an injury or incident that was caused by the bad conduct, wrongful acts or negligence of another person, or company.
It doesn’t mean that there was necessarily any criminal action or intent to kill the victim (although in some cases, there may be separate criminal charges). Most wrongful death claims arise from fatal motor vehicle or semi-truck crashes, some from defective products or designs.
The Washington State wrongful death law: RCW 4.20.010 .Wrongful death—Right of action.
(1) When the death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person, his or her personal representative may maintain an action against the person causing the death for the economic and noneconomic damages sustained by the beneficiaries ….
Who can file a wrongful death lawsuit?
Generally, the next-of-kin, or the closest family member to the deceased, can file a lawsuit.
In Washington State, the beneficiaries include a surviving spouse, parent, child, or sibling.
It’s important to note that this law changed in 2019, when the Governor signed legislation allowing parents and siblings of adult children to file wrongful death cases. Prior to this, the parents of adult children could only bring limited claims under Washington State Law. The law did not consider the impact of the loss of life on a person’s parents or siblings.
Example of the law change:
A truck hits and kills a 22-year-old man crossing the street. The young man was unmarried, with no kids.
In 2018: The law limited the amount of damages which could be claimed to “economic” losses. No damages could be awarded for the loss of love, relationship or companionship – the most important aspects of the loss.
In 2020: His parents and/or adult siblings could file a wrongful death lawsuit against the truck driver seeking both damages for “economic losses” and for the loss of love, relationship and companionship.
Does that mean the person who files the lawsuit gets the settlement or verdict awarded?
No. The law requires that a designated person be appointed as the representative of the deceased’s Estate. The designated representative of the Estate protects the rights of all of the beneficiaries entitled to damages.
We often talk with relatives who are gathering legal information, and will not necessarily be the family’s designated representative. For example, we might be contacted by an aunt for a free consultation, designate one parent as the representative of the Estate, and then communicate with a brother throughout the course of the case.
What if there are no assets or “estate”?
The law factors in more than just physical property. Just because the deceased person didn’t leave behind a huge house and a stock portfolio doesn’t mean they didn’t have assets.
When we look at wrongful death case, we look at tangible things – like that person’s potential earnings for the rest of their life – and at intangible things, like the loss of that person’s love and companionship.
And we often help the family open an Estate for legal purposes.
How long does it take to get wrongful death settlements?
It could take a few months, or it could take a couple of years. It depends on how the death occurred, how much insurance coverage is available, who you are filing a lawsuit against, and how much investigation is needed.
Please, do not try to accept a wrongful death settlement from the insurance company without talking to a lawyer. Insurance companies sometimes try to get families to accept a much lower amount because they need money quickly.
There is no way to value your case without a full investigation and accounting of the damages.
How much does a lawyer cost?
A wrongful death case falls into the general category of “personal injury law.” Most, if not all, personal injury lawyers are paid on what is known as a “contingency fee.”
A contingency fee means a lawyer only earns a fee by successfully resolving your case.
Lawyers are paid a percentage of the total amount of wrongful death settlements or trial verdict awards. This is a financial incentive to help you get the most successful resolution possible.
It also means that your lawyer incurs the risks of litigation: if we aren’t successful in your claim, then we don’t get paid a fee.
Standard fees are around 33 1/3 %, and up to 40%, when a case goes to trial. At Coluccio Law, our contingency fee depends on the facts of your case.
Additional questions about wrongful death settlements or trials in Washington State? Contact Coluccio Law for a free consultation.