When someone you love dies unexpectedly at the hands of another, the tragedy leaves behind waves of intense emotions.
These emotions may prevent you from taking the necessary actions to get justice promptly in the days that follow. However, if you delay too long, you may not be able to get justice due to Washington’s statute of limitations.
This guide will explain what the statute of limitations is and how it impacts your wrongful death case. It will also discuss how you can avoid complications due to the statute of limitations.
Wrongful Death Cases Are a Type of Personal Injury Case
The state of Washington defines wrongful death as occurring when “The death of a person is caused by the wrongful act, neglect or default of another.” These deaths occur when someone is at legal fault toward the victim, which includes:
- Instances of negligence, including car accidents
- Instances of medical malpractice
- Instances involving an intentional act where the intention was not killing the victim
The difference between wrongful death and criminal murder is the intention of the other person. If the intention was not to kill the victim, but death happens, it can fall under wrongful death. If the at-fault party intended to kill or seriously harm the victim, the case becomes criminal.
Washington Law Regulates Who Can File Wrongful Death Claims
Washington’s wrongful death law requires the deceased person’s representative to file the wrongful death claim. If the deceased had a will, the will may name the personal representative. If the deceased did not name one, the courts would appoint one.
The personal representative must file the lawsuit, but the damages from the case go to the victim’s survivors.
The Statute of Limitations Limits the Time in Which You Can File a Wrongful Death Claim
A statute of limitations refers to laws that place time limits for a legal claim or legal action to begin after an incident. This law protects people from facing unexpected lawsuits decades after an incident when evidence and witness testimonies are hard to gather. Wrongful death cases are a type of personal injury case, and they are subject to this law.
The statute of limitations in Washington state is a three-year period in which you have the right to begin a claim for wrongful death. Because of the statute of limitations, victims’ families must file wrongful death claims within that three-year window, or the courts will not hear them. If the statute of limitations expires, victims cannot take action against the at-fault party.
Though three years sounds like a long period, when grieving the loss of someone in an unexpected way, the time passes quickly. For this reason, families need to act quickly when facing the potential for a wrongful death claim.
Complications of Wrongful Death Claims Require Fast Action
Wrongful death claims often present many complications to those investigating and filing legal claims involving them.
These complex cases usually require insurance company involvement, investigations, and gathering and presenting evidence in court. They may even need a full lawsuit.
Because it takes time to gather evidence, perform autopsies, hire detectives, interview experts and reconstruct accident scenes, the process of filing a claim and going to court is lengthy. The longer a victim’s loved ones wait, the less evidence they will find. Consulting with an attorney immediately after the death helps prevent problems due to the statute of limitations.
The Time of Incident Begins the Statute of Limitations
Most wrongful death claims require filing within three years of the death. If someone dies in an accident, the death and the incident happen close together. Thus, the statute of limitations time frame is straightforward.
The three-year window starts from the date of the incident that caused the death, not the death itself. This stipulation can complicate the wrongful death claims process because some incidents do not cause death immediately. Suppose the victim is in the hospital for an extended period after the incident. In that case, families may forget that the wrongful death statute of limitations countdown starts at the time of the accident or other incident, not the death.
For example, if someone dies due to a caretaker’s negligence, but they lived a period of time after the action began before they died, then the three-year statute of limitations starts from the date the negligence began. This delay can significantly shorten the time the victim’s loved ones have to file the claim.
Washington’s Statute of Limitations in Wrongful Death Cases Has Exceptions
Washington offers a discovery rule to plaintiffs in wrongful death cases. This rule allows them to claim they could not meet the three-year deadline because of evidence they did not have at the time of the incident.
If a family claims the discovery rule in their case, the three-year clock starts when someone concluded the death qualified as wrongful. This date is called the date of discovery. It can be hard to prove the date of discovery and get an extension on the statute of limitations, which is why families should consult with an attorney.
Some states make exceptions to the statute of limitations if the beneficiary is a minor child. Washington state does not. The clock starts to tick at the time of the incident regardless of the beneficiary’s age.
Waiting Too Long Puts the Case at Risk
Waiting too long, especially waiting until the end of the three years, is a dangerous gamble. Family members risk damaging the case in several ways, including:
- The at-fault party may file a claim of failure to notify, which means failing to disclose the intended lawsuit to the at-fault party in a timely manner.
- You may discover an inability to gather sufficient evidence because you waited too long to start investigating the case.
- Witnesses may forget the evidence they saw as more time passes.
- Depositions may become unreliable due to the length of time between the interview and the incident.
- Accessing necessary documentation becomes harder.
In addition, if you miss the statute of limitations window completely, your case cannot go to court. They will refuse it entirely.
Discussing Wrongful Death Cases with an Attorney Immediately After a Death Is Vital
Even though a wrongful death leaves behind waves of emotions, victims’ families need to seek legal help right away. The days that follow an unexpected or unfair death fill quickly with funeral arrangements, grief, pending medical bills, and other concerns. In addition, many families must battle with insurance providers to get their compensation from medical and life insurance claims.
Waiting to pursue wrongful death charges puts the case in jeopardy because of the statute of limitations.
The justice in a wrongful death case may seem obvious to you as the victim’s family, but legally these cases are quite complex. They involve proving that the action or inaction directly led to the death and that the death was wrongful, among other things. The complex nature of these cases makes the help of an attorney invaluable.
The statute of limitations is short, but Gravis Law can help. Call to schedule a complimentary consultation to learn what you need to do to file a wrongful death claim.