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Justice Denied: Parents Challenge Wash. Wrongful-Death Law

Jeff Chale (middle) questioned Washington lawmakers about a law that bars him from filing wrongful death claims on behalf of his daughter. (Washington State Assn. for Justice)
Jeff Chale (middle) questioned Washington lawmakers about a law that bars him from filing wrongful death claims on behalf of his daughter. (Washington State Assn. for Justice)
February 20, 2019

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Emily Locke was crossing the street when she was hit by a car and died two months ago. Locke, who had the rare genetic disease Coffin-Siris Syndrome, was known for her advocacy work around the world.

Her mother, Cindy Locke, says she had many admirers, including a movie producer who would fly her to Los Angeles. Locke cherishes her daughter's memory and says she was in for another tragic surprise – because Emily was 28, Locke cannot file a wrongful death suit, which means the driver who struck her couldn't even be held financially accountable for Emily's funeral costs.

"It just feels so wrong,” says Cindy Locke. “It's just like there's no way to get justice for this senseless act, this senseless wrongful death. There's no way to get justice."

Washington is one of a handful states where the parents of children age 18 and older can't file a wrongful-death claim unless they prove financial dependence on their children. However, a bill in the Legislature would change that.

Locke testified in support of the House version, HB 1135, in January. The Senate Committee on Ways and Means looks at the companion bill, SB 5163, tomorrow.

Opponents say it could open up doctors and hospitals to legal action, potentially increasing liability insurance premiums.

Larry Shannon, government affairs director with the Washington State Association for Justice, points out there only are about 20 new wrongful death cases a year. He adds these suits hold people accountable and expose wrongdoing, potentially saving lives.

"In a lot of instances, the lawsuit is necessary to even get the information about how their child died,” says Shannon. “But also, the meaning of that child's life is diminished or demeaned by the fact that the law doesn't recognize the loss to the parents."

The law also bars parents in other countries from seeking legal action. Washington is the only state with this kind of restriction.

Jeff Chale has testified multiple times to reform this law. Chale lost his daughter Katie, the summer after she graduated from college in 2014.

An impaired bus driver crossed the center line and hit Katie head-on. Chale says at the January hearing, he challenged lawmakers to explain this law.

"My 95-year-old mother may have died in a hospital due to medical negligence and I would have legal standing in the wrongful death of my mother, but not my 22-year-old daughter. It's shameful. It's discriminatory," says Chale.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA