Wrongful death refers to the death of a person caused by negligence. That person should not have died, but someone or something caused it to happen. The exact laws differ per state, but in general a wrongful death claim must prove that someone’s negligence is what caused the death.

What is a Wrongful Death Claim in Washington?

Washington law 4.20.010 states that a wrongful death is when the death is caused by “the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another person.” The negligent act in wrongful death claims is often a motor vehicle accident or a case of medical malpractice, since these are two risky situations that require someone else to carefully follow procedures.

If the deceased individual would have qualified for a personal injury lawsuit, then they qualify for a wrongful death lawsuit. This is the easiest way to determine if the death qualifies for a claim. One example occurred in Seattle back in 2017, and has only recently been settled in court. A wrongful death claim was brought against the Seattle police department after they fatally shot a pregnant woman. The subsequent trial went back and forth about whether it mattered that she was committing a felony at the time or that she was suffering from mental illness. Ultimately this case is one of many that struggle to prove a wrongful death case against law enforcement.

Is an Autopsy Needed?

An autopsy is not legally required to win a wrongful death case, but it is extremely helpful in proving the exact cause of death and therefore proving negligence. Autopsies are actually rarely performed these days, with only about 5% of the deceased receiving one. It must come at the request of the coroner or the deceased’s loved ones.

2019 Law Change: Who Can File a Claim Now?

As of 2019, it is easier for the deceased’s spouse or next of kin to file a wrongful death lawsuit. The Washington State House of Representatives passed a bill (SB 5163) that added amendments to the wrongful death laws. Some of the notable changes are as follows:

  • Parents and siblings of the deceased may now file a claim even if they live outside the United States.
  • Parents can file a claim on behalf of their deceased adult child, and do not need to have been financially dependent on the deceased. Instead of proving they are dependent, the parent of an adult child must prove they had “significant involvement” in the life of their child, which is defined as showing “demonstrated support of an emotional, psychological, or financial nature within the parent-child relationship.”
  • Recoverable damages are now specified as “economic damages” and “noneconomic damages”, which was previously left vague.

Previous to these amendments, the wrongful death law had not been touched since 1909. When it was first created, some of the limitations had racist undertones. For example, the provision that prevented wrongful death lawsuits from parents outside the U.S. was to address the number of Chinese miners who were dying from workplace accidents in the states.

Recovering Damages

In Washington state, you need to file a personal injury or wrongful death claim within three years of the incident to qualify for receiving damages. Assuming that the claim is filed within that time frame and meets all the qualifications for a wrongful death suit, there are several damages that can be recovered. 

To determine what damages are owed, the law takes into account the actual loss that is suffered by the survivor(s). The two main types of damages in any personal injury case are economic (money), and non-economic.

Economic Damages

  • Medical expenses
  • Funeral expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Lost benefits such as social security

Non-Economic Damages

  • Loss of emotional support
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress/trauma


Thanks to the 2019 amendments, it is easier for family members and other survivors of the deceased to file a wrongful death claim in Washington and recover the damages they deserve. If you have indeed lost a loved one due to someone else’s negligence, a wrongful death attorney like those at NW Injury Law Center can help you through this devastating time.