SEATTLE - A Washington state law about wrongful death claims may preclude three families from seeking compensation after their children died in a September crash involving a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle.
One of them, Runjie Song, was a 17-year-old student from China. Washington state law allows parents to seek compensation for the death of minor children.
For adult victims however, Washington state has two tiers of beneficiaries:
- “First-tier” beneficiaries are spouses or children, who have a right to make a claim of wrongful death.
- "Second-tier” beneficiaries are parents or siblings, who can only make such a claim if they were financially dependent on the victim or lived in the United States at the time of the victim’s death.
Of the four adults killed, Claudia Derschmidt was the only one who had children.
The remaining three victims are 20-year-old Ha Ram Kim, 36-year-old Mami Sato, and 18-year-old Privando Putradanto. None of them had spouses or children.
Their parents are now suing Ride the Ducks, but may run into problems because they do not live in the U.S.
Pat Buchanan, an attorney for Ride the Ducks, told KIRO 7, “Under this statute, the estate still has a claim for economic damages, specifically the estate can recover net accumulation of earnings (earnings over the decedent's lifetime minus consumption.”
An attorney for the family of Ha Ram Kim has claimed these laws are unconstitutional.
The Washington State attorney general has filed a brief to defend the constitutionality of the laws, without taking any position on the merits of the tort claim against Ride the Ducks.
A judge will now decide.
KIRO 7 asked Todd Gardner, a trial attorney from Renton, to explain what recourse these parents might have.
Gardner said that the economic damages available would only amount to what these young victims might have earned in their lifetimes, minus what they would have spent, as if they were to be without a spouse or child in perpetuity.
Gardner said that comes out to a fraction of what a parent might have been able to claim under wrongful death, if they could prove financial dependency and residency in the U.S.
Furthermore, Gardner said many parents who live in the U.S. can’t even qualify under the financial dependency part of the requirement.
“If they’re on their 18th birthday and a drunk driver kills them, no claim. If they’re 17 1/2, there’s a claim. So you end up with people being treated differently,” Gardner said.
Gardner said some of these laws involving residency and financial dependency requirements came into existence more than a century ago.
“Where it came from? I have no idea. But it seems horribly artificial,” Gardner said.
He told KIRO 7 that state lawmakers tried to make changes a few years ago, but insurance companies were against it.
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