OLYMPIA — A bill that would have changed state law on who can pursue wrongful death lawsuits involving adult family members made it close to the finish line, but was pulled at the last minute.
The state Senate had voted in favor of the bill, but it stalled in the House of Representatives. Lawmakers caucused to discuss the bill and count expected yeas and nays. There weren’t enough yeas. The bill did not receive a formal vote in the House.
The proposed changes to state law were supported by Snohomish County parents who lost adult children.
Deanna and Alan Hogue’s 19-year-old son 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 Hogues, of Lake Stevens, could not sue for wrongful death. Their son Bradley Hogue was an adult and they were not financially dependent on him.
Gerry and Bonnie Gibson, of Sultan, lost their 36-year-old son in 2016. Greg Gibson died in a fire at a rental home in Shoreline that was not up to code and lacked smoke alarms. Like Bradley Hogue, he did not have a spouse or children.
The bill would have removed requirements for financial dependence and U.S. residency that have barred some family members from suing over the deaths of adult loved ones. Under current law, parents or siblings can recover damages if an adult loved one had no spouse or children; the parents or siblings were financially dependent on them; and they were living in the U.S. when they died.
Deanna Hogue was shocked and angry when the bill didn’t get a vote. She knew they needed some Republican lawmakers’ support, and believed they had it. She and the Gibsons feel party politics interfered in the end.
The parents say it doesn’t make sense that a child or spouse can sue, but a parent or sibling cannot. It’s not an equitable system, they said.
“Bradley was on a job under six hours, ordered to go up in a defective truck that was very, very dangerous, signs removed, absolutely zero training or safety gear. He was killed, and the company was prosecuted, pleaded guilty,” Deanna Hogue said. “And still, us as parents, we have no rights to hold that company responsible.”
Bonnie and Gerry Gibson feel betrayed by lawmakers. Families shared stories of heartbreak. Legislators thanked them. Some cried with them, they said.
“Then it doesn’t matter,” Bonnie Gibson said. “It’s a process, but it’s a process set up to fail. You start to get hopeful, as your bill goes through all of this … but things have to be absolutely in your favor, no matter what the bill is, in order for it to pass.”
Opponents of the bill called it an overly broad, expensive proposal.
Among those who criticized it were the Liability Reform Coalition, Washington Defense Trial Lawyers, the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington State Hospital Association.
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee in February, they shared their concerns. If the law changed, medical providers might avoid complex treatments or choose not to work in small practices because of fear of greater liability. Insurance costs for public and private organizations would increase.
Mel Sorensen with the Defense Trial Lawyers said the bill would have been a substantial expansion of the law, and one of the key problems was that “deep-pocket” defendants, such as hospitals or governments, could be held accountable for most or all costs in a lawsuit even if they held a fraction of the blame. He and others argued for an amendment to provide some protection. Families still could seek justice if the law included proportional liability for lawsuits, said Logan Bahr with the Association for Washington Cities.
Supporters plan to bring a wrongful death bill back to the Legislature next session. The Hogues and Gibsons will continue to support it, they said.
The 2018 legislative session ended last week.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.