In the nearly five years since islander Katie Chale died, her parents have been working to change a state law that they believe is unjust — and little known.
Unlike in most other states, in Washington, a law from the late 1800s prohibits parents of children age 18 and older from filing a wrongful death lawsuit unless they are financially dependent on that child. It is a provision that Jeff Chale says most people are simply unaware of — and often do not believe to be true even when they learn about it.
“They do not understand that your child can be wrongfully killed, and there’s nothing you can do. You have no legal standing,” he said. “They simply don’t believe this could possibly exist in our state, that lawmakers would allow this to exist.”
Chale and others are also working to change another element of the current law: Parents must be residents of the United States at the time of a child’s death, no matter the child’s age, for a wrongful death suit to be permitted. Washington is the only remaining state to have such a restriction; it stems from law written in the early 1900s to prevent the families of Chinese immigrant laborers from suing when their loved ones died because of unsafe working conditions. This element of the law came into the spotlight following the Ride the Ducks crash on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge in 2015. Five foreign students were killed, and their parents were not allowed to file wrongful death suits and did not receive any of the $123 million settlement.
“To me it is an embarrassment that we are the last state in the union to have such a discriminatory law on the books,” Chale said. “It is a highly discriminatory law, and in today’s world, it’s unimaginable to me that it can exist.”
With his wife Dolly, Chale has championed new legislation, first drafting a bill with the assistance of Sen. Sharon Nelson in 2017 and in the last two years, testifying multiple times in Olympia.
Chale stresses that for him, the correction of the discriminatory laws is about protecting the rights of families who suffer the ultimate loss.
“It is about justice, about holding those responsible for the death of your child accountable. How can someone who has killed your child not be accountable?” he said.
For the last two years, the Chales have been involved with the Washington State Association for Justice (WSAJ), an advocacy organization that works to protect the legal rights of those hurt by the actions of others. The organization, he said, brought together several families in the state who have suffered the wrongful death of an adult child. Together in Olympia, they have shared their stories with lawmakers, in 90-second to 3-minute segments, urging legislators to use their power to change the law.
Many islanders are familiar with the tragedy that ended Katie Chale’s life when she was 22 and a recent college graduate. Just days after she returned to Vashon from a service trip to Peru, she was driving on her way to get coffee when a tour bus carrying Seattle children on a field trip to Camp Sealth crossed the center line and hit her car. The children were unhurt, but Katie was severely injured and died in the hospital the next day. The driver of the bus was reported to have been sick while at the wheel.
Other family members testifying in Olympia have faced equal tragedy: fatal medical negligence during a daughter’s heart attack in Burbank, Washington; falling concrete, dropped by a construction crew and crushing a family in Bonney Lake, and a fatal entanglement in a landscaping company’s truck, which killed a 19-year-old in Everett.
In these cases, and others like them, parents could not hold anyone legally accountable for the deaths of their children. Had severe injury occurred, the survivor would have had legal recourse. Or had the men and women who died been married or had children, the spouses and children would have had that recourse. But in the absence of those family connections, parents — the closest relatives of the individuals who died — did not have that right.
The Washington State Association for Justice has worked to change the law, repeatedly, in the last decade. WSAJ’s Government Affairs Director Larry Shannon said the organization first became involved in 2008 and continued its efforts in 2009 and 2010, coming up short twice by one vote.
After that, with the state struggling financially and the makeup of the Legislature not conducive to the issue advancing, Shannon said WSAJ put the matter on hold, resuming its efforts in the legislative session last year. WSAJ picked up the effort, he said, at the request of legislators who wanted to change the law, particularly after pressure from the Asian American community in the wake of the Ducks tragedy.
“They felt the law was terribly unfair and outdated and wanted to fix it,” he said.
The primary sponsor of this year’s Senate bill, SB 5163, is Bob Hasagawa, D-Beacon Hill. Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents Vashon, was one of the cosponsors. He joined on, he said, because of the law’s deep roots in racism and its effect on community members.
“For me it was important to sign on because we are acknowledging a broken system that needs to be fixed,” he said. “But we also have people who are facing injustice, and as legislators, we should be able to fix that and make sure that everyone has the equity and justice they deserve.”
The Senate passed the bill on March 5, 30-17. On Monday of this week, the House Appropriations Committee took it up, with Jeff Chale and the affected other family members testifying again. From Appropriations, Shannon said the bill will go to the Rules Committee, and the full House could vote on it next week. He cautioned, though, that the legislation could be stalled at any place before a full floor vote. The bill does, in fact, have some mighty opponents, including municipalities and several medical groups who believe there would be an increase in legal action, potentially increasing insurance premiums.
Shannon says he understands the concern, but disagrees with the premise.
“I believe that people should be accountable, and if you are responsible for a wrongful death, you should be particularly accountable,” he said.
Chale says he is expecting the vote in the House to be close — and that he and others will continue working to change the law again next year if necessary.
“There will be no quitting,” he said. “If it fails, we will come back better and smarter.”