OLYMPIA — Families from Lake Stevens and Sultan are among those fighting to change state law regarding wrongful death lawsuits.
Deanna and Alan Hogue, of Lake Stevens, lost their youngest son, Bradley, in July 2014. The 19-year-old was crushed by rotating augers on his second day at a new summer job. The employer was fined a total of $200,000 for workplace safety violations.
Though it was the first workplace safety case to be criminally prosecuted in Washington in two decades, and the company pleaded guilty, the Hogues couldn’t pursue a wrongful death lawsuit. Bradley was an adult and his parents were not financially dependent on him, so state law barred them from being beneficiaries. A child or spouse could have sued, but Bradley Hogue wasn’t married and didn’t have children.
Gerry and Bonnie Gibson, of Sultan, lost their 36-year-old son in January 2016. Greg Gibson and his pit bull Nino died in a fire at a rental home in Shoreline. The rental was not up to code and lacked smoke alarms, Gerry Gibson said. Like the Hogues, they couldn’t seek damages.
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would open the door for parents or siblings who wish to pursue a wrongful death suit for an unmarried, childless adult.
Under current law, parents and siblings can recover damages if their loved one had no spouse or children; they were financially dependent on their loved one; and they lived in the U.S. at the time of the death. Damages can include monetary losses as well as the loss of intangible things such love, affection, companionship and services.
House Bill 2262 would remove the requirements for financial dependence and U.S. residency. If there is no spouse or child to pursue legal action, a parent or sibling could do so.
The bill was inspired by the fatal 2015 Ride the Ducks crash in Seattle, where foreign students died, said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, sponsor of the bill. Parents couldn’t pursue wrongful death claims because they didn’t live in the U.S.
Deanna Hogue cried as she testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee last week. She described her hard-working, happy son, who planned to study at the University of Washington and had taken a summer landscaping job to save up money.
Hogue said her family received money from workers compensation to cover funeral expenses “and that was our only resource.” They wanted to hold the company accountable.
The law discriminates against families where there is no spouse or child to take a respondent to court, Hogue said. Fines aren’t enough.
“They lost a little money and we lost our son,” she said.
Gerry Gibson explained to legislators that his beloved, musically gifted son — “one of the bright stars in our lives” — was trapped in a daylight basement that didn’t have a smoke detector or adequate exits.
“I can only imagine the confusion, terror and pain that night,” he said. “We have to live with this memory of our son, wondering how he was feeling in the last moments of his life.”
Parents just assume the law is on their side, and it’s not, he said.
Representatives of law firms and organizations that oppose the bill told lawmakers they worry about the effect it could have on the number and amount of lawsuits, particularly against government agencies and medical providers.
Bob Christie with Christie Law Group of Seattle specializes in representing government agencies in wrongful death cases. He spoke on behalf of Washington Defense Trial Lawyers. He pointed to language in the bill that would allow for recovery of “noneconomic damages personal to the decedent” such as pain and suffering, anxiety, loss of enjoyment of life and humiliation.
It would magnify the amount that could be awarded and would require juries to put a value on human life and enjoyment of life for someone who has died, he said. “It would be a windfall” that could affect governments and others with “deep pocket exposure,” he said.
Representatives from the Washington State Medical Association and Washington State Hospital Association called the bill complex and overly broad. It could have unintended consequences for medical providers and would result in more lawsuits and greater liability, they said.
Gerry Gibson took offense to the “windfall” comment, he said in an interview Monday. It’s about accountability, he said. A jury could never truly put a value on his son’s life, but it could determine that consequences should result for actions that led to his death.
Bonnie Gibson was shocked and saddened to hear from other families in similar situations, including the Hogues.
“No matter how terrible the death was, the situation was the same. It was, ‘Sorry, your child is over 18. You can’t do anything,’ ” she said. “It was never about the money. We can’t get our child back.”
The bill remains in committee. The Hogues and Gibsons planned to be in Olympia again Thursday to speak with lawmakers.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.