The adoptive siblings of a 7-year-old boy who died of starvation in the care of his adoptive mother can't sue for wrongful death, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled today.
The estate of Tyler DeLeon had filed wrongful death claims against the boy's primary care physician and his psychiatrist and also alleged they were aware of the boy's injuries but failed to report them under the state's mandatory reporting law.
The high court affirmed a Spokane County Superior Court decision to dismiss a portion of the case against Dr. David Fregeau, the Rockwood Clinic, and psychiatrist Sandra Bremner-Dexter. But the Supreme Court said the doctors could be sued for failing to report the abuse.
The state Department of Social and Health Services and three employees also were sued, but the agency separately agreed to pay more than $6 million to Tyler's estate and other foster children in a 2008 settlement.
Tyler weighed only 28 pounds when he died Jan. 13, 2005, the day he turned 7. His adoptive mother, Carole DeLeon, was sentenced to six years in prison after entering a plea to criminally mistreating Tyler and another boy in her care. She was released last year after serving half of her sentence.
The lawsuit on behalf of the boy and his adoptive siblings cites an extensive history of abuse complaints and health concerns regarding foster children at the DeLeon home, including broken bones, knocked-out teeth and withholding of food and water.
Tyler's adoptive siblings are considered second-tier beneficiaries under the state's wrongful death law, which means they can recover damages under that law only if they were dependent upon him for support. Their lawsuit against the doctors argued that they did depend upon him because DSHS provided $717 month in adoption support to Carole DeLeon for Tyler.
The doctors argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Tyler's estate and his adoptive siblings were not financially dependent upon them. The high court said "DSHS provided separate payments to Carole DeLeon to supplement her support of other children in her home."
"I knew that we had a tough case it make, but I thought it was worth the effort since I think not compensating Tyler or Tyler's estate for what he suffered through is just wrong," said Allen M. Ressler, a Seattle attorney representing the plaintiffs. "The legislation as written right now makes no sense to me."
Justice Gerry L. Alexander concurred with the majority opinion, signed by eight justices, on the issue of whether the siblings were qualified to bring wrongful death claims. But he dissented with his colleagues on whether the doctors could be sued for failing to report child abuse or neglect.
The majority said the mandatory reporting law doesn't explicitly provide a civil remedy against a practitioner who fails to report suspected abuse but said it was implied as a means of enforcing the reporting duty. Alexander said the conclusion contradicts what the Legislature intended, which was to make it a misdemeanor crime to report child abuse.