Bradley Hogue (left) and Greg Gibson.

Bradley Hogue (left) and Greg Gibson.

Emotional day for families as wrongful death bill is passed

It would give parents a chance to file claims and recover damages for the loss of an adult child.

OLYMPIA — Deanna and Alan Hogue were in the midst of a round of miniature golf with their sons on a course in San Diego when an email arrived Monday afternoon.

At that moment, on the floor of the state House, lawmakers were about to consider a bill to change state law on who can pursue wrongful death lawsuits involving adult family members.

The Hogues had expended much energy and emotion imploring lawmakers to enact this piece of legislation. Now, with passage imminent, they, their sons and a daughter-in-law huddled to watch the debate and vote via TVW on an iPhone.

“It was so emotional after two years of fighting for justice for our families,” Deanna Hogue said Tuesday shortly before the Lake Stevens couple returned home.

On a 61-37 vote, the state House passed the bill to erase a provision in state law barring parents from bringing claims for the wrongful death of their adult son or daughter, unless they are financially dependent on the child. The bill also removes a requirement that parents or family members must live in the United States to be eligible to make a claim.

This legislation, Senate Bill 5163, cleared the Senate on a 30-17 vote in March. It will now go to Gov. Jay Inslee for his expected signature.

The Hogue’s 19-year-old son, Bradley, was crushed to death by rotating augers at his new landscaping job in 2014. The company pleaded guilty in a criminal case — the first workplace safety case to be criminally prosecuted in Washington in two decades — but the parents could not sue for wrongful death. Their son was an adult and they were not financially dependent on him.

They won’t benefit from enactment of this law. That doesn’t matter, Deanna Hogue said.

“It was so important to us that nobody has to go through what we had to go through, that we could not hold the company accountable,” she said.

Gerry and Bonnie Gibson, of Sultan, trekked to the state Capitol the past two years in support of a change in the law.

Their 36-year-old son, Greg, died in a fire at a rental home in Shoreline in 2016. The abode was not up to code and lacked smoke alarms. Like Bradley Hogue, Greg Gibson did not have a spouse or children.

There’s no legal recourse for the parents. But, like the Hogues, this is about creating a path for justice for others.

“It was never about the money,” Gerry Gibson said. “The landlord should never be able to get away without following the law. In this instance there’s no liability.”

Going forward, the legislation “gives you opportunities to seek justice and then it is up to the courts,” he said. “It puts the love for our children on par with everything else.”

Senate Bill 5163 proposed to rewrite several tenets in existing wrongful death statutes to expand the pool of potential beneficiaries entitled to recoveries. And it is retroactive. It will apply to all claims pending in any court when the law takes effect and ones that are not time-barred.

For example, a parent or sibling may be a beneficiary of a wrongful death action if there is no spouse, domestic partner, or child.

Under the bill, a parent or legal guardian may bring an action for wrongful death of an adult child if they have had “significant involvement” in the child’s life.

The legislation says they could be entitled to recover damages for the child’s health care expenses and other economic losses, including “the loss of love and companionship of the child.”

Opponents zeroed in on the potential hit on budgets of cities, counties, hospitals, the state and other public entities. A party found to be 1 percent liable in an action could be forced to pay the lion’s share of damages because they have the deeper pockets, they said.

“Every wrongful death, by its very nature, is a tragedy — for the victim and the surviving family,” Dana Bieber, executive director of the Liability Reform Coalition, said in a statement.

“Long-established statutes and court-approved case law strike a delicate balance: provide justice and compensation for financially dependent family members affected by the tragedy of wrongful death, but include limits where there is no financial dependence,” she said. “That balance is undone by SB 5163.”

Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, was one of a handful of Republicans to support the bill.

It is “wholly unfair” for someone to be found 1 percent at fault and have to pay most of the damages, he said. It is also “wholly unfair if a child is wrongfully killed there is no recourse for their death.”

Sutherland has three daughters and said he viewed the bill through the lens of a parent.

“It is the right thing to do in my opinion,” he said.

Testimony from the Hogues and the Gibsons aren’t all that played into the passage of the bill.

Attempt to change the law date back more than a decade. It almost got done in the 2018 session. The Senate passed a bill but it did not receive a vote in the House.

“It was very devastating,” Hogue recalled.

She returned to Olympia this year to testify. Many other parents did too. There were more of them than a year ago.

It paid off Monday.

“A loss of a child is the hardest thing anyone can ever go through,” she said. “I was happy to be here with my boys when we found out the news. I think my political days are over for now.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos

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