The hard questions about wrongful death settlements in Washington State

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, or from bad acts.

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: how wrongful death law in Washington State changed.

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 the person who files the lawsuit get the settlement?


Washington State 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.

Recommended Article: Elements of Wrongful Death Claim

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.

But how is case value calculated?

Wrongful death case value is calculated by a statistical process, using government guidelines. It is based on a lot of different factors, including damages.

We know that a wrongful death case doesn’t bring back someone you love. It is just the closest thing to “fair” that our justice system can do: provide the remaining family with monetary compensation.

It is not perfect, but it is as close to justice as we can get. 

What are “damages”?

“Damages” is a legal term for money awarded by a court. When you file a civil lawsuit, you are asking to be fairly compensated for the harm and losses caused by someone else’s bad actions.

Our civil justice system recognizes that no one can undo what has happened. The only thing we can do is to provide a way for you to recover damages for that loss

  • Economic damages in a wrongful death case are the hard costs and expenses, like any final medical bills and funeral or burial expenses. The loss of the future wages of the person who died may also be included.
  • Non-economic damages are the intangible costs, like the person’s suffering before their death, and also the loss of that person’s companionship in the lives of remaining family members.

 Recommended Case Study: Wrongful Death: Failures by 911 Operators and the County’s Emergency Call System

How much is the average wrongful death settlement?

There’s no real average wrongful death settlement, just like there’s no real average death.

These cases depend on factors like how old the person was when they died, the circumstances surrounding their death—and the ability to hold someone legally and financially accountable for it. There are many more factors that are considered.

We do have jury verdicts and past settlements, that help us evaluate the best possible outcome for each case. Talking with a lawyer will help give you a better idea of what is possible in your particular circumstances.

Who pays for a wrongful death settlement?

It depends on how the death occurred. In general, a wrongful death settlement—or a trial verdict—comes from an insurance policy, not from individuals.

Examples: how death settlements are paid. 

A person is killed in a fatal car crash.  If the crash caused by someone else, then that driver would be responsible and their car insurance company should pay. It is rare (although sometimes possible), to have a person pay out-of-pocket in a wrongful death lawsuit.

If the vehicle that caused the fatal crash belonged to someone other than the driver, then we would look at the owner’s insurance policy as well.

A person dies as a result of medical malpractice. A wrongful death claim from a medical malpractice case may be paid by the insurance companies from the hospital or medical facilities, and/or the policies for the individual doctors and medical practitioners.

In these cases, the people who caused or contributed to the death were at work: their personal assets are not at risk.

Recommended Article: How are Wrongful Death Settlements Paid Out

Need to talk about wrongful death settlements or trials in Washington State? Contact Coluccio Law for a free consultation.

More FAQ

We start an investigation. Sometimes, this is as simple as obtaining police and witness reports. In more complex cases, we look to expert investigators to help us piece together what happened.

Attorney Kevin Coluccio has been investigating wrongful death cases for more than 30 years, and has accurately assessed fault in hundreds of cases.

It can be a really difficult decision. A lawyer may need to turn down a potential wrongful death case because there’s not enough evidence, or because it would be impossible to prove what happened.

When our office decides to take a wrongful death case, we commit to fully investigating and understanding the circumstances surrounding the death.

We put in the work to put forth the best possible case, and get you the best possible result.

For any free consultation with Coluccio Law, if you send a message, you will get an email or call back as soon as possible.

If you call, a receptionist will ask a couple of basic questions, get your contact information, and put you in touch with the first available member of the legal staff. If attorney Kevin Coluccio is available, he will speak with you directly.

In the first conversation, we will ask you questions about the person who died, when and how they died, and determine what other information we might need to start an investigation and open a wrongful death case.

We will try to understand if it is possible that another person’s bad actions caused your person’s death. If so, we would want to act quickly to preserve evidence and help you protect your legal rights.

If we are not able to help with your case, we will do our best to refer you to another legal resource.

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